“You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one.” ~ John Wooden
Accepting Criticism (Gracefully)
A respected colleague who just heard your work presentation decides to share some feedback with you after the event. They tell you that you spoke too quietly, didn’t articulate the main point thoroughly enough and lacked a compelling example.
Their criticisms are on-point and well-intentioned, and yet your chest tightens and your throat tenses up, your heart beats a little harder in your chest, and you glance around to see if anyone else can overhear this conversation.
Thoughts start to race through your mind. “I can’t believe what I am hearing. I worked for days trying to perfect this presentation. Days! I’ll never be invited to give a presentation again. Everyone is probably thinking the same thing. Oh, god. How humiliating. Trust me to screw up an opportunity like that.”
Your feel warmth flooding into your cheeks, and a lump appears in your throat. A feeling of embarrassment sweeps over you, and a tear moistens your eye, but you swallow your feelings, and force a smile. Somehow you manage to thank your colleague, but nevertheless walk away completely deflated.
Negative feedback is something we all have to face whether it’s in our work or personal lives. And whilst the reaction above may sound extreme – its actually very common. That’s because the primitive part of the human brain is only capable of responding to the world in one of two ways: We-are-safe or We-are-in-danger.
If we get hooked by our primitive brain we can end up responding unproductively to such feedback. But the capacity to take on feedback from others, both positive and negative, is an essential skill if we want to experience the fulfilment that comes with enhanced competence and enriched relationships.
It is possible – and necessary – to think positively about criticism.
Typical Reactions to Negative Feedback
When receiving unfavourable feedback – whether this feedback is coming from your partner, friend, business associate, mentor or boss – you might find that you have one or more of the following reactions:
We say very little, disguise any hurt or humiliation, push the feelings way down and eventually act like it never happened. Our attitude becomes: “Thanks for sharing!”
We justify our actions, give explanations, point out reasons. “There was so much happening last week, I didn’t end up with nearly the time I needed to prepare. Oh, and the microphone wasn’t working so well today.”
Denial automatically makes the other person wrong. “I disagree; I’m great at what I do. They’re just jealous of my success.”
We fire back questions as a defensive mechanism. “Well, if you want me to understand what you’re trying to get at, I’ll need some specific examples. What exactly was the problem? Why didn’t you like it? Did you understand what I was getting at? Maybe you missed the point?
“The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” ~Norman Vincent Peale
For some the response can be so overwhelming, they move straight to shut-down mode. Like an animal that plays dead to try to survive, this person cannot speak, feel frozen, disconnects from the other person and from their own experience. “I can’t do this.
Anger is the first reaction for some. “Get off my back, will you? How dare you criticise me! You of all people! I thought you were my friend.
We go on the offensive through blame, innuendo or other unsolicited comments. “I never believe anything those hotshots have to say. You know how it is in that department. They love putting people down. Typical!
We turn all our negative reactions inward against ourselves. “I am such a loser. I’ll never get it right. I’m never doing another presentation.”
All of these reactions serve to distract us from painful feelings of not being good enough, as well as the notion that we need to change in some way. But adapting to feedback—which inevitably asks us to change, and sometimes significantly—is critical if we are to succeed in our careers, our businesses, and our relationships.
The Urge to Fight, Flight or Freeze
If you experience any of the above reactions, just know that your prehistoric brain has most likely taken control of your body because it has decided “You-are-in-danger” and now it is working hard to ensure you survive. (There’s a good brain!)
Essentially your brain is reacting to this feedback-conversation like it just spotted a hungry lioness a few metres away. And when it feels sufficiently threatened, your prehistoric brain has the capacity to shut down your logical, rational, “higher-mind” and initiate pre-programmed survival reflexes – commonly known as the Fight, Flight or Freeze reaction.
(Review the above list and see if you can determine which reactions fit under fight, flight or freeze. Also highlight which of these responses you would tend to gravitate towards.)
Once triggered, there is often little you can do, except, er, enjoy the ride 😬
After around 20-30 minutes, the fight-flight-freeze response will subside and you’ll start thinking more rationally once again…and hopefully you haven’t done too much damage to yourself or your relationships while prehistoric brain has been in charge.
So are we helpless to the faculties of the prehistoric brain? In certain circumstances the answer is yes, absolutely. Your prehistoric brain is a threat detection machines and when it thinks it has detected something threatening in your environment, it will initiate the fight, flight, freeze response before your conscious brain has even received the information. That’s how we get hijacked by this “cave-person” brain.
But all is not lost. We can reprogram ourselves to be less reactive to criticism and feedback.
“When virtues are pointed out first, flaws seem less insurmountable.” ~ Judith Martin
Changing Your Mindset and Accepting Criticism
Taking the dread out of receiving criticism can happen with a simple little twist of words – so as to preemptively alter your brains’ interpretation of the feedback event as neutral or even as positive. For example, imagine how it might change your response with each of these thoughts:
– I’ll fall apart if anyone says anything negative
– I hope no-one criticises me after this is over
– I’m open to receiving feedback on my efforts
– I hope I receive some useful feedback after this so I can improve at this
– I might seek out Jen after this, I know she will have some honest and helpful comments
If we are to change our thinking, then we need to dive deeper down and shift our limiting beliefs about criticism. Here are some common limiting beliefs:
– Failure is not an option
– I can’t show any weakness
– I have to get it right every time
– Criticism is something I don’t cope well with
– If I don’t do a good job the first time, I may as well give up
These beliefs will prime your brain to react any time you receive feedback. But what if you were to adopt some new beliefs?
Here’s a few suggestions:
– Failure is how I will improve
– All feedback is a gift
– I don’t need to be perfect, I just want to be better
– Progress not perfection
– As long as I give it my best effort
There is evidence that the primitive part of the brain assigns both positive and negative values to the information it receives from your environment, so it is possible to reprogram your brain to see something as positive and beneficial that you once saw as negative and threatening.
Turning “Feedback” into “Food for Thought”
And now, here are some additional suggestions that can help you accept criticism and transform negative feedback into food for thought:
Track your own reactions.
Recognise your emotions and responses. What body sensations, thoughts, emotions arise? Recognise that whatever arises in your mind is your own responsibility. It is not the other person’s fault you are responding as you are. You get to choose how you think and how you respond. When we own our own reaction, it opens the way for genuine communication with the other person.
Though it may be difficult to identify, you may feel inhibited and ashamed upon hearing feedback that requires change. Ask trusted friends to listen, encourage and offer suggestions. Work with a coach. Even in settings in which people are expected to be self-reliant (such as many jobs), it’s nearly impossible to make significant change without such encouragement.
Listen with an open mind and heart.
Begin by acknowledging that the perception of the person giving feedback is the reality that needs to be looked at. Without confirming or denying the perception of that person, simply listen and take in what he or she has to say.
Change defensiveness to curiosity.
Don’t explain or defend yourself. It may be appropriate to bring the subject up later, if explanations are appropriate. For now, though, say the three magic words: “Tell me more!” What has the person giving you feedback observed? What does that person expect or want you to do differently? Don’t assume you know what the other person means…ask questions to clarify your understanding.
Regard all feedback as an act of generosity.
Feedback can help you recognise habitual styles that may need to change. It can help you reexamine how you are living your life. It is a wonderful gift. Consider offering sincere appreciation for to the bearer of feedback, even acknowledging how difficult it may have been to deliver the news.
Focus on the message not the packaging.
There may be times when feedback is given harshly or by someone with whom we struggle, or there is a mixture of truth and personal distortion in what we are told. Forget about what package the message comes in; what is the message? How can you penetrate to the truth contained in the feedback? What can you learn? Contemplation is a critical step to integrate the message.
Reframe the feedback.
When we put feedback in a positive light, negative emotions and responses lose their grip. For example, you could see the feedback on your presentation as a way to improve your chances of promotion, leading you to improve your skills in various ways. Or, the feedback may point you to greater personal success in a position that does not require presentation skills.
The Bottom Line: Accepting Criticism is Essential to Mastery
If you work with me as a coach or psychologist, then you know my approach is grounded in an understanding of the human brain and how it influences behaviour. You have probably also heard me talk about how the human brain develops skills, and how important deliberate practice is as part of learning any new skill, habit or mindset. Rehearsal is how humans learn everything. We have to repeatedly practice, with conscious effort and we have to anticipate mistakes, get curious about our mistakes and use them as teachers to help us improve our effort making and practice. This is how you develop mastery at things – be it business skills, career skills, relationship skills, mindset skills or anything else.
Taking feedback to heart in a positive way puts you in control, shifts you out of helplessness, and most importantly, it takes you from good to great. It may require ruthless self-honesty, courage, and a little detective work, but the payoff is high.
Until next time,
Books I Recommend on this Topic
– Mindset, Carol Dweck
– Dare To Lead, Brene Brown
– How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie
– Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman
– The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle
Content written and edited by Michelle McClintock, The Mindset Mentor ©
Author’s content used under license, © Claire Communications
The Mindset Mentor
Michelle McClintock is a Life & Business Mindset Strategist who specialises in transforming your mindset so you can experience more peace, happiness, success and fulfilment.
Michelle has 30-years experience in personal development, as a Psychologist, Facilitator, Speaker and Results Coach. She loves it when people get new insights that spark massive growth and positive transformation.
Through her writing and videos she makes complex coaching and psychology ideas easy to digest and assimilate, so you can create your ultimate life.