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  • Writer's pictureKL Forslund

How to Receive Criticism

Everybody gets criticism. And many of us don’t receive it as well as we would like to. That’s the diplomatic way of saying we bollox the whole thing up. This is another life lesson that not only bears repeating, but we’ll mess up despite having learned the lesson. I would bet five minutes after posting this article, I will get it wrong. Some lessons are hard to master.

Today, I will talk from the perspective of a writer, but the reality is I’ve learned (and relearned) how to handle it in our work, our hobbies, our personal lives. I’ve been on both sides of this as a business person, software developer, musician, and spouse.

If you have a short attention span, here’s the short version with a story. My writer’s guild runs critique meetings. Read your story and everybody spends 2 minutes each pointing things out to you. Then you get 2 minutes to respond. A fellow writer in the group showed poise and finesse in his response, and he summed up his technique. Restate and list out all the points that were raised, thank them and sit down.

It’s that simple. For those of you are compulsive about reading everything, or figure I might say something funny, stick around, I’ll explain the thinking and go into some advanced techniques for situations.

It’s hard to be humble, that’s why I don’t live in Humble

Whether you’ve got an ego that is wider than the door frame, or a tiny microscopic one, nobody likes having their ego bruised. The moment somebody issues a criticism, we are vulnerable to saying the wrong thing that makes us look bad, and worse, closes our mind to the point being raised.

Active Listening Response

If you’ve been to at least three classes or seminars on communication, you know what Active Listening is. I got mine in my corporate life, and believe it or not, I’ve gotten a lot better at communicating. The basics of Active Listening is when somebody says “You spent the first three pages before it got interesting.” You reply by summarizing and restating what they said, “So you’re saying, I should cut some of the beginning out to get to the action sooner.”

In the example from the top of this article, what’s great about the technique is that the writer just got 10 minutes of concepts and points thrown at him. He might have scrambled to write it all down. Instead of focussing on that thing he disagreed with, he stuck to recapping what he was told.

This reinforced in his memory what he heard, confirmed he missed nothing important because everybody nodded back at him. He also didn’t appear hostile, argumentative or angry because I told him his beginning was slow (making that part up). Is he going to convince me that I’m wrong about how I felt? No. So don’t spend energy on that.

Had he spent that time arguing that the beginning was laggy, he would have reinforced in his mind that the beginning was fine, just like he thought it was. That means he stops looking at the beginning of his story to see that yes, it could be pepped up a bit by cutting pokey parts out. Regardless of the delivery of the message, if somebody tells you there’s a problem in your work, you need to receive that message.

One way to trim the emotion and spicey packaging is by restating it to the core point. Science has shown that if I make you write an article espousing a viewpoint you disagree with, your actual views will have shifted. The same trick applies here. Now that your mouth or hand has just repeated the points, your brain can digest this stuff in the background. On the drive home, you’ll be like, “maybe I could cut out the part where he calls his mom...” instead of “I can’t believe that idiot KL called my story slow, that guy doesn’t even have a real name!”

This is why writers are advised to put their work in a drawer for awhile after they finish the first draft. To get some emotional distance from it. Feedback needs the same thing, albeit shorter. Much like not sending that angry email right after you type it. Save it, walk away, come back to it with a cooler head.

Angry or over-negative feedback

The rote strategy to responding to hyper-bad criticism is to be silent. Don’t feed the trolls. In an ideal world, don’t even read it. This is true on the comments page. Moderate the heck out of rule-breaking comments, and make sure you have a comments policy that covers personal attacks and such (I do).

In real life, it’s not always that easy to ignore and delete. In that stand-up critique, you’re in the room and you heard “your crap stinks and no amount of potpourri will ever make this bathroom smell good.” and “Even my tortoise died reading this slow beginning.”

Bring that Active Listening to the rescue. In my experience, even harsh negative feedback can have clues and warning signs that your work needs improvement. In the two example quotes, the first one is useless as to what part is wrong. All you know is that person didn’t like it. The second one, wrapped in the middle of artistic insulting is that slow beginning.

So in that restating, point at each person as you recap. “You didn’t like it. And you and KL think the beginning is slow.”

I realize it is not that simple to come up with that on the fly. This is where thinking before you speak is needed. If you can’t pull it off, don’t respond to those guys. In a group setting, say at work, or my writer’s guild, everybody else would be shocked at their unprofessional words. Your skipping them speaks volumes. After the incident, after you calm down, either speak to them or the leadership about it. You’ll still look professional, they won’t. If they aren’t spanked or talked to, that also says a lot about that place and you can decide if you want to put up with it.

Praise and Gushing Positivity

Let’s cover the other extreme. I don’t know what to say when people are super enthusiastic about my work, either. Maybe I don’t get enough practice.

See what I did there? That’s either self-deprecating or a humble-brag. Neither is a best response, based on my experience and some stuff I’ve read but am too lazy to look up links to.

So what do you say? How about “Thank you.” Nice and simple.

In Conclusion

The biggest killer to listening in a meeting is you sitting there waiting for the other guy to shut up while thinking of the witty rebuttal you have to an earlier statement. In the setting where you are being given feedback, that’s not productive and it won’t make you look good.

Stick to the plan:

  1. Identify and list out their key points/observations. If they didn’t, write it down.

  2. Ignore abusive feedback. If they can’t be precise or be respectful, they aren’t helping you.

  3. End by saying thank you. Covers both the positive and the critical feedback.

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