By Goke Ilesanmi
Irrespective of what we do and how perfectly we think we have done it, criticism is inevitable. Criticism is even so celebrated that we have different categories of critics. There are textual critics that criticise or assess texts. There are also social critics that criticise developments in the society, including government policies.
The question is, “How do you react to criticism?” The way you react to criticism has a lot to do with how you will be perceived and your ability to be successful since you need the assistance of those around you to succeed. Research confirms that the best way to deal with critics is to give them an ample opportunity to do what they do best.
One of the common strategies people adopt against criticism is the survival mode. Sharon Ellison, an award winning speaker, international consultant and author of “Taking the War Out of Our Words” says, “When we feel attacked by our spouse, our children or by a work associate, we often instinctively put up our defences and move into survival mode. And little do we realise how we’re shooting ourselves in the foot!”
In an actual war, to be attacked means to have our survival threatened. Thus, we may choose between surrender, withdrawal or counter-attack. When we feel attacked (that is, criticised or judged) by others in conversation, we often move into that same kind of survival mentality and automatically defend ourselves.
Ignorance and experience
When we desperately defend against criticism, we give power to the criticism and the person dishing it out more than is warranted. For instance, in my last place of work, where I left as Acting Editor, one thing I noticed about some sales/marketing managers was their desperation to defend themselves even against rational criticisms bordering on the need to improve visibility and sale of our newspaper copies. In short, if you just raised any observation at the general staff meetings or management meetings concerning the need to circulate (more) copies of the paper to a particular location based on what readers’ request, you would be seen by them as an enemy.
I discovered that because of their over-reaction to rational criticisms, their success was being affected because if you knew of a place where they could get more sales and boost their performance, you would be reluctant to tell them. Some people were even determined to get them annoyed with criticism because of their (sales/marketing managers) being over-sensitive to simple business criticisms and observations.
One day, I called one of them after the management meeting for the day, where he had fought almost everybody. I told him he was always giving himself unnecessary stress because of his over-reaction to criticisms and observations. I let him realise that the essence of management meetings anywhere was (and is) to review organisational performance. Since the issue of revenue is critical to such meetings and he was the sales manager (responsible for bringing money), then people would naturally ask him questions and make observations about his financial performance. I advised him that at the meeting, he should thank anybody that criticised him or made any observation about his performance instead of fighting people. I told him that he should even be begging people to suggest ways through which he could improve his performance before anybody started asking him questions. And the strategy worked.
At the next management meeting, he did exactly as I had advised, telling people that criticisms about his performance and observations regarding how to improve his performance were welcome. Because of the mature way he handled the situation, people could not criticise him. Rather, they suggested strategies that he could use to boost his performance. After the meeting, he came to thank me and said he did not know that he had been pouring petrol into the fire all this while with his over-reactions to criticisms and observations.
Lora Adrianse, publisher of “Relating@Work” says, “Let’s look at an example of an overly critical colleague I used to work with. Donald was (and probably still is) a perfectionist and a chronic critic. Nothing was ever good enough for him. He could find a flaw in anything and he always had an opinion about what he would have done differently. Donald had one more especially irritating habit though. Instead of bringing his criticism to me, he’d take it straight to my boss. The boss (another story for another time) felt the need to share Donald’s input with me. There was a time it felt like a never ending cycle of Donald ‘reporting me to the boss’ and the boss delivering the criticism. You might guess they were both getting under my skin. I knew that it was up to me to find a way to change what I could and minimise the stress it was causing me.”
Experts such as Adrianse and Laurie Weiss, Ph.D., author of “Dare To Say It!”, an internationally known executive coach and psychotherapist say there are a lot of things you can do in this type of situation. According to Adrianse, the action plan to deploy in a typical situation of criticism is as follows: the first thing is to stop resisting. This is because whatever we resist persists. Another thing is to change what you can. Embracing the critic is yet another strategy. You should also establish an agreement. The last strategy is to reinforce the new behaviour.
Adrianse reflects that by changing her thinking and taking responsibility, she was able to strengthen her relationship with Donald, get the boss off her back and reduce her stress. To remain non-defensive, we must separate how we take accountability ourselves from whether or not the other person chooses to do so at any given moment.
In non-defensive communication, we address the issue the other person has brought up trusting that we can bring up our own issue later. At some point you may wish to disagree with part or all of what the person is saying. However, if your initial response to criticism is to gather more information, you will definitely gain professional respect. Also, if the other person is off-base, your questions may prompt him or her to re-think the criticism. Ellison says for most of us, responding to criticism without defending ourselves means being “defenceless”, caving in, losing face, feeling bad about ourselves. On the other hand, responding defensively means being harsh, closed, shutting others out. This is a no-win choice. We look bad and undermine our own self-esteem either way.
If we can learn to respond to criticism with true non-defensive openness and clarity, asking questions, stating our position and setting limits when needed, we can build our own wisdom and earn the respect of people around us. Through this habit, we will easily achieve success in life because people would like to associate with us.
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GOKE ILESANMI, Editor-in-Chief/CEO of https://www.gokeilesanmi.com.ng and Managing Consultant/CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is a Certified Public Speaker/Emcee, (Business) Communication Specialist, Motivational Speaker, Career Management Coach, Renowned Book Reviewer, Corporate Leadership Expert and Editorial Consultant.
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