Curious Criticism?

Aug 24, 2009 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"When I am criticized, I feel_____________"

If you are like most people, you complete the sentence with words like, "hurt, angry, defensive, dejected, disappointed, embarrassed, put-down, failure, no good, resentful" or other words that communicate the same.

Indeed, few of us come home, call up a friend, or tell our partner, "Hey, I had a great day today...I got criticized." Few people raise their hand when I ask, "How many of you like to give criticism?"

The reality is, for most people, criticism causes conflict in their relationships. At work, it often sours relationships with the boss, colleagues, staff, and clients too. At home, there is a plethora of research indicating that frequently mismanaged criticism is a prelude to an unhappy marriage, and parenting skills that impede rather than enhance a child's development.

Yet, there is an equal amount of research that indicates giving and taking criticism productively is a key attribute of successful individuals, marriages, and organizations. Here, criticism is used as a tool to promote intimacy, enhance performance, and develop positive relationships.

What can you do to enhance your ability to take criticism productively? (Giving criticism productively will be for another day). Maybe hearing about one of my recent teaching experiences will get you started.

Not long ago, I gave the top 100 partners of one of the world's largest service consulting firms a curiosity assignment. They were to schedule a meeting with one of their top clients for the sole purpose of soliciting criticism.

Criticism-giving and taking it-had been the topic of the seminar so the rationale was clear and they had gotten a lot of tips about taking criticism positively.

They knew that one of the best ways to accelerate your own learning and development is to direct their curiosity instinct towards themselves: to discover, explore, and investigate yourself so that you can determine what has an impact and gets results in your life and how to discern the areas in your life that you need to develop. In effect, the genius of your curiosity instinct makes criticism an enhancer of self awareness, and this helps us thrive.

Self-aware people have a critical edge, and this is as true today as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago. Early man who used his curiosity to find out how he could be more effective and what he might be doing to impede his own success was an ancestor who was creating "self-help genes."

"What's the best way to learn about yourself?" was the first question, the class opener. "Take some psychological testing," was one response. "Go to a therapist," was another. Somebody earnestly offered, "Reflect and take stock of yourself."

"Here's another. Ask for criticism." My suggestion surprised the group and they became more attentive.

I explained that criticism is all around us-in our work relationships, marriages, parenting and friends. It is everywhere. Received openly, it enhances all aspects of our lives, including making a performance appraisal more useful, making a marriage more satisfying, and developing our leadership capacities. Literally dozens of studies support that giving and taking criticism well is crucial to our success in life.

Yet, most of us, including those given the assignment find hearing criticism about ourselves and/or our work, to be upsetting. In our minds, we think of criticism as a hostile attack. In our bodies, we feel it with a fear and anxiety response. Today, that translates into defensive behavior, which, more often than not, deaccelerates our learning and often prevents us from profiting from the information given.

"Be curious about criticism," is the prescription for regulating your defensive arousal. This allows you to approach criticism with a friendlier attitude, and as a result, you can become more physically relaxed and learn. Curiosity arousalis pleasant. Tip: If you are in an office, you might find, for example, sitting back in your chair rather than on the edge, will help keep you calm.

To spark your curiosity and buffer your defensiveness, develop a curious attitude about criticism: "Criticism is information that can help me grow. How can this information help me? What is it the person wants me to know?"

Accelerate your learning by soliciting criticism from those around you. And, phrase it positively: "What are some things that I could be doing better?" Not: What am I doing wrong?"

When you hear the response, delay your own, which most likely, even with your new curious attitude, will be defensive. Instead, thank them for their thoughts and spend the next few days not retreating from, but instead exploring the implications and applications of what they told you. Equally important, how do you feel when you learn about yourself?

It won't take long for you to realize that you will not die from what you heard-criticism is not a "lion, tiger or bear, "oh my!".

Evaluate the criticisms with curiosity, the attitude that will most help you discover the perceptions of others so that you can profit from them.

Please note: chances are great that you will be criticized before you go to sleep. When it happens, please think about what you just read. Thanks, and I would like to hear how you typically respond to criticism.