By May 30, 2011 19 Comments Read More →

Dealing with Critics and Criticism

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“Artists teach critics what to think. Critics repeat what the artists teach them.” — Sol LeWitt

Everyone’s a critic.  Well now, how’s that for some common ground?  It’s easier to critique than to create, and the world has no shortage of critics.  In a way that’s a good thing, because if you want to improve, you can find plenty of critics that will give you feedback.

The trick of course is learning how to deal with critics and criticism without becoming without becoming jaded, calloused, or thick-skinned.

What I want to give you are some proven practices for dealing with critics and criticism so that no matter where you go on your journey in life, you can make the most of the critics and the criticism in your life.  By using these practices, you can use your critics to spiral up vs. spiral down, or waste a bunch of energy down dead-end paths or no-win situations.

I’ve been lucky enough to work in some of the toughest areas in the software domain from application architecture to security and performance.  At Microsoft no less.  As you can imagine, working in tough areas means a lot of smart people with a lot of opinions and a lot of heated, passionate debates.  Notice how I said lucky … it’s all in how you look at it.  I’ve been lucky because I’ve been beat up and pulverized by some of the best.   In the early days it was tough, but gradually I learned how to use the criticism to continuously improve my work.  I learned how to not take it personally.  I learned how to see from multiple angles.  I learned how to better evaluate the sources of the criticism.  I learned how to put people’s opinions in perspective.  I learned how to make feedback useful, relevant, and actionable.  I’ve also learned to just as easily ignore feedback that’s not actionable, not relevant, or not useful.

At the end of the day,by making more room for all the high quality feedback, you automatically crowd out all the trivial and the trite.  Life’s too short .. make more room for the good stuff.

12 Strategies for Dealing with Critics and Criticism
As far as critics and criticism go, here are a few lessons I learned that might serve you well:

  1. Find a way to agree with your critics.  It takes the wind from their sails.  If you first agree in some way, they felt heard – and you need to establish rapport before you worry about influence (if you first agree with your critic, you have a better chances of persuading.)
  2. Turn your critic into a partner.  Ask a solution focused question (e.g. “How, dear critic X, might
    you solve problem Y?” …)
  3. Find the lesson.  You can find a hidden lesson (either for improving yourself, your idea, or dealing with critics)
  4. Don’t take it personally.  They’re attacking the idea, not you.  There’s a conflict in value or a conflict in expectations or a conflict in rules.  Just about every conflict is a conflict of rules or style — not
    the person — not you — you simply violated their “rules” or “expectations.”  Some folks are so “task” or “thought focused” you’re not even part of the equation.  You’re just on the receiving end.
    you’re not even a part of their equation.  The less you make it personal, the more you can address the real issue and avoid chasing the rabbit down the hole, or playing a game of follow the herring.
  5. Don’t bring your ego into the equation.  If you keep your ego out of it, you can evaluate from stronger ground.  You can better evaluate whether something is a fact or an opinion and whether it’s relevant, without getting all fired up.  This is an exercise in emotional intelligence.
  6. Use your purpose to get back on your horse.  If you do get knocked off your horse, then use  your “why” to get back on.  It’s behind what you do, and it’s your fuel to keep going.  It’s like the line from that song — “I get knocked down, but I get up again …because you’re never gonna keep me down.”
  7. Focus on what you control and let the rest go.  You control your reaction (the gap between the stimulus and response)  You control your effort.  You control your attitude.  Don’t let other people push your buttons.
  8. The market’s not ready for it I learned this from some smart analysts.  I had an idea to change the world.  The analysts agreed.  I asked Gartner why it might not get adopted.  They said the idea is great, but the market’s not ready.  It surprised me, but at the same time made so much sense.  Some ideas are ahead of their time, just like some ideas are too little too late.
  9. Feedback is your friend. Use it if it’s useful.  Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger ;)    As one of my mentors put it, there are always three ways to deal with feedback: 1) ignore it, 2) take it all in, or 3) figure out what’s relevant and actionable, and use it to grow.
  10. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.  Sometimes you have to remind people when you’re the messenger, not the message.
  11. Have a metaphor for your role.  Are a shepherd ?  Are you a coach?  Are you a stone-cutter? (consistent effort over time until one day the rock breaks.) Having the metaphor will help you through thick and thin.
  12. Build your support network.  You support network can act as your personal sounding board and help you rationalize any feedback.  They may see things you don’t or have a better perspective.  A few years back I adopted a practice that serves me well.  Each week, I have lunch with an old friend, and somebody new.  This tunes, prunes, and grows my personal and professional network.

That’s a small set of distinctions, but they’re incredibly effective and they’ll serve you well.

Hold steady to your course.   Share your gift.  Some people know but can’t share. Some people share, but don’t know.  The beauty is when you have the gift of knowing and sharing and you use it well.

Books that Nail this Topic

Photo by phunkstarr.

19 Comments on "Dealing with Critics and Criticism"

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  1. One of my favorite all-time quotes is by Theodore Roosevelt:
    “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

  2. JD says:

    @ Jason — Wow, that is one fantastic quote.

    > “he man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood”
    It sorta sounds Spartan 300 style — I love it.

  3. I am constantly trying to improve, to become better.
    Critic is free advice. It is what I need to know in order to improve.

    Sure sometimes critic can be hard to take, but I crave it since I want to improve and therefore can usually shrug it off.

    If I can’t I try to step outside myself and pretend that we are talking about someone else. Do I then agree with the critique?

    Often though critique is unfounded and are just complaints, listen, respond but don’t get defensive, try to see the truth, take the best points with you and then put it behind you.

  4. JD says:

    @ Daniel — You said it so well with precision — “take the best points with you.”

    Edward de Bono did a great job of sharing a variety of ways to agree in his book, “How to Have a Beautiful Mind.” Here are a few gems:

    1. Explore the other person’s logical bubble (how they see their world)
    2. Identify special circumstances in which you might agree
    3. Identify special values in which you might agree (“If I valued xyz, then I would agree.”)
    4. Identify special experience in which you might agree (“If I had had the experience of xyz, then I would agree.”)
    5. Disagree with a generalization, but agree with some parts of it.
    See a spectrum between none vs. all: none, a few, some, many, most, the majority, by and large, all.

  5. These are very valuable strategies. I’ve often been ahead of the game. A lot of frustration can come from having pioneering ideas that seem to fall flat in the moment, but ironically are someone else’s hot idea 5 years later. It’s been a tough one to learn and I’m glad you included it here for others to watch out for. Agreeing with the critic is also often very smart. Thanks, your posts are always so valuable.

  6. It’s always good to receive feedback about one’s work or one’s self, but let us be honest that at a certain time it can be annoying when a critic can be a bit too harsh. it can really put a damper on one’s feeling of self worth or opinion on work, but kill them with kindness, right? Will take these tips into consideration in any future incidents that may popo up.

  7. Hey J.D.,

    Fabulous ideas! A lot of how you deal with the big C can be traced to early life/schooling. Did people scream at you or sit you down?

    When I first returned to writing, I’d take every publication rejection very personally – almost descending into a funk. Then I figured out — it’s just someone else’s opinion. I learned how to receive it, take what worked for me and abandon the rest.

    #1 really disarms criticism in the form of attack. It’s useful for situations where you’re trying to change the status quo.

    And I just love #8.

    We run around saying we’re innovative, but try and change something and you’ll get all kinds of push-back from those at the top. Some of us wanted to put in a community garden on unused town property. It took a giant PR campaign by the people to make that happen when we are the town.

    #10 also rings true. People do become messengers of the system, even when they don’t agree with it or makes no sense.

    This would make a great book! Thx, g.

  8. Kate says:

    Hi J.D,
    Great list. I think we always have to look at where the critic is coming from….if they are genuinely trying to help and offer constructive criticism, it should be embraced.
    If they are just being obtuse, we definitley need to avoid taking it personally. But even in that situation I think we can take some sort of lesson. Even if it is just that others have a completely different view of the world!

  9. rob white says:

    Fantastic advice, JD. The moment we take things personally and get defensive the walls go up and no progress can be made. It’s a lose lose for the critic and the creator. Criticism fosters fabulous opportunities for growth. It takes art and tact to give and receive criticism — Indeed mastering the Fine Art of Criticism has us mastering the Fine Art of Living.

  10. Excellent, JD. And I’m a fan of Edward de Bono’s books, too.

    “If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success.” – Malcolm X

    If you will have fans, then you will also have haters. So, you may as well press on!

  11. Keith Davis says:

    JD
    That is one useful article.
    Not always easy to deal with criticism, but your 12 points are a great resource to learn how.

    Number 2 looks like a pretty useful strategy…

    “Turn your critic into a partner. Ask a solution focused question (e.g. “How, dear critic X, might you solve problem Y?” …)”

    Can’t wait to try that one.

    BTW – didn’t realise that you were a Microsoft man.

  12. John Sherry says:

    Simple, sensible, doable, but top notch tips JD. I particularly love #10 because many mix up the message and the messenger i.e. they hear crticism and begin criticising right back when there was none in the first place. And that’s it for me, it’s about our own personal base level. Do we always hear criticism when anyone says something about us or do we only ever hear support and welcome it? That will tellingly indicate if the problem is outside with others or inside within us. It’s just like when people get a compliment – can they accept it or not or did they recognise it or not? which proves that the biggest critic of all time..is us.

  13. Hilary says:

    Hi JD .. 1 and 2 are really helpful starters .. critics and criticism – so difficult and challenging .. so easy to be negative, but makes so much sense to be positive.

    A very good read .. thanks and also for the book recommendations .. Hilary

  14. Mark says:

    Doing these tips will help with single criticism or max “famous 7″ at once.

    IMHO, the root problem is that we are often overwhelmed by massive criticism / questioning and we don’t know how to deal with this. Do we have take each one sequentialy and solve it? Lots of time will be lost.

  15. JD says:

    @ Sandra — Thank you. I think now more than ever we have to really know what the market wants (I’m using market loosely.) One sanity check I always use now, is “Is there an appetite for that?” I try to learn fast and figure out where the demand is. Our economy has definitely shifted from a “push” economy to a “pull” economy … and demand generation is a lot tougher than just satisfying the demand that’s already there.

    @ Gabriella — Youre right, and sometimes you have to lay the smack down too ;)

    Two ways to lay the smack down with skill are to read the book “Thank You for Arguing” and check out “Argumentation” by, The Teaching Company.

    @ Giulietta — Thank you. I think these skills are incredibly important. I mentor a lot of people at work, and one of the things I help with is confidence.

    I forget the saying, but the gist is that confidence really helps keep criticisim in perspective, and the way to stay balanced is to choose curiosity over confrontation or arrogance.

    @ Kate — Thank you. You reminded me of the power of pairing up with your critic. If you can see their side, they’re more likely to take a look at yours.

    The trap I see people fall into, is when they share their opinion or perspective as if fact. A little framing, like “in my opinion” or “in my experience”, goes a long way.

    @ Rob — Thank you. Ahhh, the fine art of living … you reminded me of a beautiful word — “Areta.”

    @ Randy — Thank you. Malcolm really knows what he’s talking about — spot on.

    @ Keith — Thank you. The “deal” is the “art part” … and it’s definitely a sliding scale :)

    It’s a powerful thing when you got your worst critics solving your problems for you, and it’s like mental judo.

    I’m a patterns and practices guy, but Microsoft has been a great arena for me. Rather than a big fish in a small pond, I wanted to be a guppy in the ocean.

    @ John — I think I’ve had the benefit of being my own worst critic. I’ve learned to use my critical skills for the greater good.

    I’m a continuous learner so I encourage people to give me honest feedback — raw and real. I think just knowing that nothing is permanent, personal, and pervasive makes a big difference in keeping feedback in perspective.

    @ Hilary — Thank you. The beauty is once you know the key strategies, they get easier with practice. It’s like working out.

    @ Mark — You reminded me of another strategy which is to create space between the criticism and the response. Sometimes a little time is the best thing.

    Questions are powerful and sometimes the best way to deal with massive criticism is to ask whether the right question is even on the table — it helps do a reset.

  16. I have learned from this post when it comes to dealing with criticisms. But I also have my own idea in dealing with them, “Be like a ball, the harder they throw you down with criticisms, the higher you must bounce back from it”…
    Lynne

  17. JD says:

    @ Lynne — Good framing — it goes beyond the “I’m rubber, you’re glue …”

  18. farouk says:

    quite a hot topic J.D. thanks for the post:)
    id like to also add that the comment should be assessed to find out the intention of the person so that you can deal with him the right way

  19. Florence says:

    I fully agree! Criticism just has to be seen as something positive. Constructive criticism gives you the feeling that your work is appreciated and cared about. No feedback at all makes your work look like it isn’t seen by anyone at all. I had some struggles with my boss… i often felt like he wanted to keep me small… he criticised wherever there was the opportunity for it and i often felt like I couldn’t do anything right, what again had an impact on my output. Since, I talked to my coach (can recommend you Your24hCoach by the way) I changed my attitude a lot more. I take the criticism with more attention and try to show my appreciation instead of looking like an insecure child that is screamed at. Criticism is a blessing. The only way to improve your performance. Still some of it can be very hard…

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