Dear Crucial Skills,
Constructive criticism. I absolutely hate it and completely shut down when I hear it. It’s still criticism, however “constructive” the giver thinks it is. But I know it’s a popular thing to “give.” How can I overcome my aversion to it?
Fearful of Feedback
Before you work on overcoming your aversion to constructive criticism, I have a suggestion: explore it. It may be telling you something.
In my experience, people are averse to constructive criticism for one of two reasons. They either think the criticism is intended to tear them down rather than build them up—the critic is simply hiding their intent behind the term “constructive”—or they associate criticism with shaming. Any feedback that implies they could or should do something differently negatively impacts their sense of self.
I am not sure from your message what’s contributing to your aversion, but I encourage you to explore it. Until you know, you won’t be able to address it.
Now, assuming you fall into one of the two categories above, here are some suggestions for how to move forward.
If the constructive criticism is more critical than constructive, try reframing it.
For example, someone calls and says, “Hey, Emily, can you talk? I have some constructive criticism about your recent Q&A.”
Now, my hackles might immediately raise because, yuck, constructive criticism. But I can influence how this interaction unfolds by framing my response to highlight the constructive part of constructive criticism. “Sure, that would be great. I always appreciate good feedback and specific suggestions of what I can do better.”
With this framing, I have hopefully communicated that I’d like to hear not just what I did poorly, but also specific suggestions of what I should do differently.
Ask for the FIX
In some cases, people intent on telling you what you’ve done wrong may miss your subtle reframing. If that happens, ask for the FIX.
Years ago, my mentor Kerry Patterson was working with an up-and-coming writer named Liz Wiseman (you may have heard of her). Kerry had asked Liz to copyedit something he had written. Liz diligently edited the piece, marking one specific passage with AWK, a common proofreading mark that indicates awkward phrasing. After Kerry reviewed Liz’s edits, he returned the paper with a note: “Never give an AWK without a FIX.”
When people give you feedback, it’s fair to ask them for a specific fix. Let’s go back to the example above about feedback on this article. Let’s say my editor, or critic, highlights a few things he doesn’t like and then stops. My response?
“Thanks for pointing that out. I’d really like your suggestions on how to fix this or improve it. What do you suggest?”
Make a Choice
You have probably heard the expression “feedback is a gift.” You might have an aversion to that expression too! I know I did for many years—until I stopped and thought about what it meant.
Imagine someone gives you a gift, maybe a piece of art for your home or an article of clothing. The gift is thoughtful and expresses love or appreciation. Unfortunately, the gift is simply not your style. It doesn’t fit in your home or wardrobe. It just isn’t you. So, what do you do? If you are like me, you express your honest and sincere appreciation for the thoughtfulness behind the gift. And then you re-gift it or donate it.
The point is you don’t have to keep it. Just because someone gives you a gift doesn’t mean you must integrate it into your home, your wardrobe, or your life. You get to choose. And so it is with feedback. You can be grateful that someone took the time and effort to share their perspective, and you can choose whether or not to integrate that feedback.
Finally, don’t expect feedback to be delivered perfectly. Your critic may have valuable perspective, even if delivered poorly. For some great insight on how to listen to a poorly delivered message, check out Joseph Grenny’s presentation “Feedsmacked” from Crucial Learning’s 2019 REACH conference.