The Constructive Criticism Conumdrum

Originally published 2/20/2016

For years, I’ve lived by the mantra that I am always seeking change and improvement.  I’ve long known of the dangers of using words like “never” and “always” when characterizing behavior, but I’ve usually applied it to interactions with others, making sure I don’t accuse people of always or never doing something.  Recently, I was forced to confront this mantra head on and ask myself if I am really always seeking development.

Change is hard for everyone.  We’ve all seen the cases where people try to make too many changes too quickly, and they never last.  The smart move, we’re told, is to make small, incremental changes that become more sustainable.  It’s important to make sure you’ve broken or created a new habit that has become automatic before you continue to introduce new changes.  I’ve come to think of change more as a step function, rather than a constant uphill slope.  Have you ever tried to skip multiple steps on a staircase?  If you have, you know it can be painful when you overestimate how many stairs you can take on and fall short.  You have to acknowledge your abilities and limitations and only take the number of stairs you’re physically capable of if you want to land safely at the next level.

Even as someone who welcomes change and constantly looks for books and experiences that will change my worldview or behavior (presumably for the better), it can still be hard to receive constructive criticism from those I’m close with and whose opinion matters to me.  It can feel like a slap in the face when someone criticizes the way you show up in the world, even if you know they are coming from a place of love and compassion.  Why is this?  Why can’t we smile broadly and say, “Thank you so much for this feedback, I am excited to incorporate these changes into my behavior”?  I think a lot of it comes down to the delivery and the topic, but I’d venture to say when someone you care about offers ideas for your improvement, there is always a visceral reaction.  For me, I’ve noticed I often get a lump in my throat, and I can feel my cheeks and neck getting flush.  Ultimately, I can usually get to a place of gratitude once I’ve taken time to reflect and digest the feedback, but how I react in the moment is a big indication of whether or not the person offering the feedback will be willing to do it again in the future.

Rather than fight my natural reaction to constructive feedback, I have learned to come at it with an attitude of acceptance.  I know how my body will react, and the first few thoughts that will race through my mind.  I don’t resist this reaction, I embrace it.  I strive to bring more awareness and mindfulness to my reaction.  The time it takes me to reflect on the feedback varies, sometimes taking only a few minutes, other times taking a few weeks.  In the moment, I try to ask questions about what prompted the feedback and ask for specific examples so I can make sure I fully understand the context and meaning of the feedback, even if it’s hard to hear.  I will then thank the person giving it and let them know I will take these considerations to heart.  Then I get introspective.  Does this comment reflect an isolated incident?  What experiences of the person giving the feedback caused them to notice this particular behavior or comment on it?  Do I see value in the feedback?  If so, what changes can I make in how I’m showing up?

After this phase of reflection, I always make sure to follow up with the person giving the feedback.  Once I’ve been able to gain some distance from the incident, I can discuss it more calmly.  I like to have a conversation about the conclusions I’ve drawn from the feedback, and thank them for giving it.  I’ve found this to be a useful tactic because it helps the person giving the feedback know that I acknowledge and value their opinion and the time they took to share it with me.  In some cases, I decide to incorporate only some of their feedback into my behavior, and I like to explain why so the person doesn’t think I am simply ignoring their comments.  This method has served me well, and I hope it can serve you as well.  Making changes is hard, especially when the suggestion for change comes from someone you care about.  I challenge you to be mindful in your reaction to constructive criticism, take time to reflect, and follow up to ensure a continued dialogue.