Take it or Toss it? How to Evaluate Criticism
A simple framework to determine if criticism is destructive or constructive
Posted Jul 30, 2011
I picked through the bones of her week until I finally got to the source of her lackluster mood: a lifelong friend had given her some "feedback" that had really upset her.
I have to confess that when she quoted her friend I shouted with laughter. Not very professional, perhaps, but it just popped out. The accusation - and it sounded more like an accusation than a criticism - seemed ludicrous based on what I know about my client, who is a fabulous, sensitive, immensely kind and thoughtful woman. After hours on the phone exploring the most inner workings of her self and life, I think I have a pretty good idea of who she is.
In the next breath, after apologizing for my rather strong response, I recognized that I'm obviously biased and don't have all the information, so I couldn't immediately assume that her friend was wrong or out of line. So we went through the situation in detail, looking at it from as many perspectives as we could to assess its validity.
Today, driving home from the clinic, I was listening to a CD featuring leadership expert John Maxwell. I was struck by his framework for how to evaluate a criticism, as it was very similar to the process that my client and I went through together:
1) Who is the person who has offered the criticism?
Maxwell noted that it's far better to be criticized by a wise person than applauded by a fool. My client has known her friend forever, views her as wise and frequently seeks her advice. Based on this, the criticism deserves a closer look.
2) What is the spirit behind the criticism?
Was it delivered in a judgmental tone or from a place of genuine kindness and caring? As Maxwell pointed out, if you look closely at a criticism you can usually determine if the person who delivered it wishes you well, or does not wish you well. Obviously if there seems to be envy or malice or any other negative intent behind a critical comment, there's a good chance that it's meant to be destructive rather than constructive.
In my client's case, though her friend's choice of words was somewhat unfortunate (very judgmental in tone), they love and admire each other and have a long positive history. She was quite certain that however irritated her friend seemed during the conversation, she does care about my client and wants the best for her.
3) What were the circumstances when the criticism occurred?
As Maxwell pointed out: "Hurting people hurt people". When I dug a little, I discovered (not surprisingly) that her friend was under enormous strain - she was in the middle of a big move and had just experienced a major relationship upheaval. Since she was stressed to the max and highly irritable (this was obvious to anyone), it wasn't surprising that she was unusually harsh towards my client.
Maxwell was dead on when he stated that well-placed criticism is the thing we enjoy the least but usually need the most if we're to achieve success and our full potential. Even though I prefer to help my client feel good about herself and her life, I wouldn't ever want to blind her to useful and important truth.
In the end, we decided that there was probably some truth to what her friend had complained about. However, the hurtful and extreme way in which it was communicated probably had very little to do with my client and much more to do with the fact that her friend was stressed out of her gourd.
How do you handle criticism? Are you able to tell the difference between criticism you should heed, and that which you should just flick off your shoulder like an unwelcome bug?
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