For Best Results, Take the Sting Out of Criticism
THIS may come as a surprise, but I don’t like criticism. I prefer constant praise and approval from my friends, family and bosses.
On the other hand, I feel that my friends, family and bosses should be open and accepting of any criticism I offer — always given constructively, of course.
Does the adage “you can dish it out but you can’t take it” apply here?
All right, I exaggerate a little. I don’t hate criticism. Professionally, for example, I would rather have someone take my work seriously and offer valid — even if somewhat negative — comments than be indifferent or bestow meaningless compliments.
The trick, however, is to learn to both give and receive criticism well. If we hear any comments that are less than positive as an attack, then we discard anything useful that the critic has to say. But taking all criticism to heart, no matter how unhelpful, isn’t beneficial, either.
“Most people say feedback is important, but the hidden message is, ‘as long as it’s good.’ ” said Robert Brooks, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
Although it may seem easier to give criticism than to take it, that’s not always the case, at least not if you want to do it right. Leon F. Seltzer, a clinical psychologist who has written extensively on this subject, differentiates between criticism and feedback. In a blog he writes for Psychology Today, he notes that:
¶Criticism is judgmental and accusatory. It can involve labeling, lecturing, moralizing and even ridiculing. Feedback focuses on providing concrete information to motivate the recipient to reconsider his or her behavior.
¶Criticism involves making negative assumptions about the other person’s motives. Feedback reacts not to intent but the actual result of the behavior.
¶Criticism, poorly given, often includes advice, commands and ultimatums, making the person receiving it feel defensive and angry — and undermines any benefits. Feedback, on the other hand, looks less at how the person should change, but tries to prompt a discussion about the benefits of change.
This last point is one that Darren Gurney, a high school teacher in New Rochelle, N.Y., has thought a lot about. Mr. Gurney also coaches high school and college baseball teams and runs a summer baseball camp that my sons love. He has found that one of the most effective ways to criticize a player is not to tell him what he did wrong, but ask him to analyze what he thinks he could have done better.
“Listening skills are the most underrated skills,” Mr. Gurney said. When coaching, he says, he asks the players to break down three things that went wrong that day and how they can do them better in the future.
“It transcends the playing fields to life skills,” he said.
And although it may seem obvious, Dr. Brooks said, people take criticism a lot better if their boss (or spouse or parent) isn’t too stingy with positive feedback.
Understanding a person’s upbringing when issuing criticism is crucial, Mr. Gurney said. Whether because of natural temperament or the environment in which they grew up, or both, some people are used to a robust exchange of ideas (let’s call it yelling) while others shrink from it.
Shinobu Kitayama, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, identified clear differences, for example, in the reaction to criticism in the American and Japanese cultures.
“In general, it seems as if criticism is very hard to take in contemporary American culture,” Professor Kitayama said. “It’s seen as a threat or an attack on self-esteem or as violating social rules. In Japanese culture, self-esteem is important, but more important is improving yourself.”
In a large study of Japanese and American Olympic athletes, which Professor Kitayama co-wrote, Japanese athletes and commentators were twice as likely as Americans to criticize their performance or make negative comments about it.
“Americans say about four positive comments to one negative comment, while the Japanese tend to equally balance positive and negative comments,” said Hazel R. Markus, a professor of psychology at Stanford and another co-author. This and other studies, she said, indicate that failure feedback is motivating for Japanese while success feedback is motivating for Americans.
Lisa Orrell, who writes and does workshops for what she calls millennials — people in their 20s — says there are also generational differences. “Old-style management may be more curt,” she said, and often less hands-on, reserving feedback for quarterly reviews. “Millennials want to communicate often with their managers, even every day.”
Ms. Orrell acknowledged that the generation now in its 20s may also be less used to, or able to cope with, negative opinions.
“I run something called a millennial business boot camp, and I speak specifically to 20-somethings,” she said. “I tell them, ‘You’ve got to be flexible and open. How something is said may rub you the wrong way, but you need to hear what they say. You can’t just shut it down because it’s not praise.’ ”
But it’s not only those in their 20s who need to learn how to take criticism. Some people’s hackles are raised at the slightest criticism, while others are more willing to listen and learn. But few embrace it.
This is because most of us have an “inner Charlie Brown” Mr. Seltzer said. “One of the reasons everyone relates to Charlie Brown is he is so insecure.” To neutralize that part of us, we need to realize that “we’re fundamentally O.K., even when we make a mistake,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that because we screwed up, we’re screw-ups. And the only way to do that is to have self-esteem firmly anchored within.”
But promoting self-esteem doesn’t mean giving only positive feedback, Dr. Brooks said, but rather helping children learn how to cope with constructive criticism at school and home so they can grow into adults who can handle it at work and in relationships.
Experts say that when hearing criticism the important thing is to listen. Don’t go on the defensive, but don’t assume the critic is right. Although it’s not always easy, try to determine which information is valuable and relevant and which isn’t. While your first instinct may be to argue or apologize and quickly leave the room, stay and calmly ask questions to clarify the situation.
Also, consider the source. As a columnist, I receive numerous e-mail messages about my articles. Many are thoughtful, but some are downright mean — and those are often anonymous. Although it’s not always easy, I have to remind myself that a vituperative comment is not a valid criticism.
And when the critical remark hits home? Well, I just have to remember, as the writer Elbert Hubbard said, the way to avoid criticism is to “do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”
Speaking of criticism, my last column on preteenagers and cellphones prompted some readers to comment that the best way to ensure that children limit their cellphone use is to make them pay for some or all of the cost. I agree, and, should have mentioned that we do require our sons to pick up most of the cost of their cellphones.