Zen and the Art of Criticism

by Jon Jordan via Flickr CC

Delivering and receiving criticism with grace is one of life’s biggest challenges.  Mastering this challenge has an enormous effect on your overall happiness and quality of life, both at home and at work.  And it can help you foster and maintain relationships and sustain healthy communications.

I was recently asked how I handled rejection of my ideas or direct criticism and it got me thinking about the role criticism plays in our lives. I came up with the following list of three  elements one needs to master.

  • Deliver criticism gently and in a way that gives it the highest chance of being heard.
  • Accept constructive criticism in a way that allows you to learn and grow from it and not just see it as a personal attack.
  • When criticized in way that is not constructive and could possibly be a personal attack, calmly view the criticism from any angle to see if there is any useful information in it; take what is useful and learn from it; and, most importantly, let the rest go completely.

I wish I could take credit for setting this as a goal and accomplishing it; but, I have to admit, that I was unknowingly trained in the ins and outs of criticism.  After 2 years of art school and 2 years of studying for a Masters in creative writing, which were both criticism boot camps, I became more adept at delivering criticism and thoroughly trained to hear criticism and take what I needed from it.

I’m going to leave the first one for another post and tackle the second two because learning how to receive criticism with skill can have a dramatic improvement on your work life.  It can help change your experience from negative to positive and help you succeed in a work world where developing emotional intelligence is more and more becoming a pathway to success.  It also gives you control over how painful an experience it is.

Accept constructive criticism in a way that allows you to learn and grow from it and not just see it as a personal attack.

I think it might be human nature, when faced with criticism, to immediately begin thinking defensive thoughts and many folks don’t just think them; they verbalize these thoughts thereby starting a cycle that is hard to break and usually results in no one being heard.  The first rule of receiving criticism is:  Say nothing.  Just listen.

When you refrain from responding immediately and focus on hearing what is being said, a funny thing happens.  Your initial defensive thoughts that were clouding up your brain begin to dissipate and it becomes easier to hear what is being said.  Then the constructive part starts because you can start zeroing in on the parts of the criticism that are helpful.

The second rule of receiving criticism is to back away from the personal.  You’ll want to take it personally, after all, someone is expressing disappointment with something you did.  Even if it requires a Herculean effort on your part to wrangle your brain past the personal, do it.  Nothing will be accomplished if you are taking criticism personally.  Ask yourself this:  if this was not about my performance, what would I think about this criticism.  If this is not a personal attack, what is this person trying to say?

The third rule is to filter out what you need.  I’d have to say that most people are not the greatest at delivering criticism.  So, when you receive criticism, you frequently have to weed through extraneous details, nervous chatter, and commentary that is just irrelevant.  If you imagine a sky filled with stars, there are always a few that twinkle and shine a bit brighter than the others.  I think of it like that.  Let the useful information shine brighter than the filler.

When criticized in way that is not constructive and could possibly be a personal attack, calmly view the criticism from any angle to see if there is any useful information in it; take what is useful and learn from it; and, most importantly, let the rest go completely.

There are people who are motivated by personal reasons to criticize.  They even sometimes take pleasure in it.  I think these people are rare.  Most people feel uncomfortable delivering criticism and would rather avoid it.  It is still your job to listen, pull out any bit of information that is useful and just let the rest go.  You need to follow the first rule above and say nothing.  When a person is motivated to personally attack you, there is no point in engaging in a discussion with them; but, there is also no point in not learning something from it.  It might be that the thing you learn is how to deal with a toxic coworker.  Or you might learn how a boss handles stress, failure or pressure from their own boss.  You are the master of you.  A coworker may push every one of your buttons; but, you get to choose how you react.

A few years ago, a friend made me make a list of the qualities I was looking for in a romantic partner and near the very top of my list was the following:  someone who receives criticism maturely and delivers it gently.  I think the same could be said about any of the people who pass through my life in a significant way including bosses and coworkers.  It is an essential life skill that when mastered will change the quality of your work and personal life quite dramatically.

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