Criticism: Turning Gripes into Growth
No one enjoys being criticized. Yet, if you want to succeed,you have to overcome all your natural instincts and actively seek outfeedback, good and bad.
As a professional speaker, I know how it is. I face thousands of criticsevery week called audiences. Not only do they rate me with their applause andlaughter (or lack thereof), but frequently they are asked to complete writtenevaluations, providing feedback for the meeting planners. I want those meetingplanners to look like heroes, so I do everything possible to keep in top form.That means that I embrace and value criticism. I study those evaluations andlisten to all comments, no matter how off the mark they may seem. And eventhough I've been speaking professionally for more than two decades, I stillpay speech coaches regularly to be my toughest critics.
If you want to advance, you need to develop a positive, flexible, andcreative attitude toward feedback. Here are some practical ways to toughenyour hide and change your perception.
- Diffuse attacks. To give yourself breathing room, turn "attacks" ofcriticism into information exchanges. The natural human reaction is to becomedefensive and offer a list of reasons why the comment is untrue. This quicklylocks both sides into fixed adversarial positions from which it is hard toretreat. Break the cycle. As hard as it may be, respond to any negativecriticism by immediately agreeing it may be correct. Then ask for morespecific details, enlisting the accuser as your ally in improving thesituation. You'll get lots of useful feedback, both negative and positive.
- Use the Olympic scoring rule. Throughout your life, you'll get a widerange of commentary on how you're doing. Discard your highest and lowestratings. Bill Gove, past president of the National Speakers Association, said"In any audience, ignore the 10% who think you walk on water and the10% who think you are no good at all. Then listen to the middle 80%."
- Consider the source. Do your critics have the right background andexperience to judge your work accurately? Are they in a position to give youvaluable input? You can't change to satisfy everyone. ("A camel is a horsedesigned by a committee.") In my career, I've been given some really goodadvice and some really bad advice. The key is deciding which is which.
- Separate intent from content. Any negative comments about our actions,appearance, or attitudes automatically seem very personal. Yet, amazingly, thecommenter may have had the best intentions. Recognize that different peoplehave different personality styles and communication skills. They may sincerelymean to help but deliver negative comments in a way that is hard to processand accept. On the other hand, an ill-wisher often provides valuable insights.Decide that it is never productive to take any comments personally.
- Seek out criticism. Some jobs offer regular job performance evaluationswhere employees get feedback. If you don't have such a program, ask forpersonal feedback anyway, from both your manager and those you manage. Onesuccessful AT&T executive sits down on a regular basis with his staff and asksthem, "What things am I doing well? What would you like me to do more? What shouldI do less of or stop doing?"
Recruit your customers as allies by asking them to be your critics. Don't bedefensive. Keep your clients happy by being as eager to please them as yourcompetitors are. In any selling situation, you're still selling after thesale. It won't be long before a rival asks them, "What do you want that yourcurrent supplier isn't providing?" Get the jump by asking the same question.Seek out the criticism before your competitor does!
"When a customer offers criticism," advises Bob Treadway, a Denver-basedspeaker, "invite them to be more specific." For example, if they say, "Thisdelivery should have come sooner," ask them in a friendly tone, "Howmuch sooner, specifically, would you like it?" If they say, "You could havedone a better follow-up," say, "Tell me how exactly you'd like us to follow upin the future."
Treadway advises asking open-ended questions that can't be answered with ayes or no. For example, "How could we help you with that?" or "Whatimprovements would you like to see?" Then summarize what they have said: "Itsounds like we could do a better job if..."
- Feed back your feedback. Paraphrasing what you've just been told helps toeliminate misunderstandings, honoring and acknowledging the criticism andcompelling you to really listen. "Nothing," Treadway says, "demonstratesbetter to a client, boss, or spouse that you have heard them than paraphrasingtheir statements." It also helps you to filter out and focus on the usefulinformation.
- Protect yourself. We're not always in shape to cope with negativecomments. It's appropriate to give people feedback on the best time and way tooffer you feedback.
People learn to treat you the way you teach them to treat you. Dear Abby onceran a letter from a slender, attractive woman whose mother never failed toremind her of how fat and unattractive she had been as a teenager. Dear Abbysuggested that she say, "Mother, let's not discuss that anymore." So simple,yet so hard to withdraw permission after years of negativity.
It's your job to communicate that you will respond better if you can receivethe criticism in a different way, time, or place.
- Don't expect everyone to love you. Praise and approval are wonderful. Weall thrive on them. But we all need a dose of reality now and then. Justbecause people notice imperfections and point them out doesn't make them yourenemies. If you've armed yourself with a positive attitude toward criticism,they are going to be your best friends.
Patricia Fripp is a San Francisco-based executive speech coach and professional speaker on change, teamwork, customer service,promoting business, and communication skills. She isthe author of Make It, So You Don't Have to Fake It and Get What You Want! Fripp also served as president of the National Speakers Association. She can be contacted via e-mail, at 800-634-3035, or through her Web site Fripp.com.
Copyright © 2000 Patricia Fripp