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“You suck.”

Everyone encounters criticism, whether it is a boss pointing out falling performance, a bad review for your book, or even self-criticism after an embarrassing slip-up. Your ability to digest that criticism and make use of it says a lot about your character. Even better is to be the kind of person who can take a sharp, verbal critique, stand up and ask for more.

People are Too Nice

Most people won’t tell you what they think of you. And if they do want to slide you some honesty, it is usually wrapped in a sugar coating. Why then, with our compulsion to smooth the truth, does it hurt to be on the back end of an honest opinion?

I believe it is because most of us have shied away from getting honesty our whole lives. As a result, we haven’t trained the ability to recognize that a criticism of our behaviors, results or efforts isn’t a criticism of ourselves. Once you train yourself to notice the separation, you can start using any criticism thrown your way and actively seek more of it.

Honesty is a Good Thing, Here’s How to Survive It

Here are some tips for surviving the floods of good intentions that might crash upon your ego:

  1. Balance Yourself - The salience effect is a cognitive bias where we tend to focus on the most recent or memorable piece of information, ignoring the collective. Whenever you get a piece of criticism, you need to balance it by recognizing that this is just one tiny critique out of all feedback. Don’t exaggerate it’s impact on who you are.
  2. Get Them to Focus on Behavior - If you are in the middle of an evaluation, try directing the person onto your specific behaviors, not you. Tell them you are interested in hearing their suggestions and ask for positive ideas for improving your methods.
  3. There is No Absolute Feedback – Part of the sting comes from converting feedback, which is entirely relative, into absolutes. If someone told a stand-up comedian he wasn’t funny after a show, that would probably mean he wasn’t as funny as other comedians that person likes. It doesn’t mean he is objectively, the most unfunny person who ever existed.
  4. It’s Opinion, Not Fact – The only benefit of feedback is if it illuminates weaknesses or strengths you suspected but hadn’t realized. You always have the option to disagree with criticism.
  5. Don’t Ask for Honesty When You Want Support – Don’t ask people for honest feedback if you plan to tune out anything but praise. Notice your internal state when you want feedback. Do you want help or validation? Get clear, otherwise you might get an unexpected critique.
  6. Flip it to Positive – Guide the person towards making suggestions for improvement rather than pointing out flaws. It’s easier to hear: “You should try slowing when you deliver a speech,” rather than, “I couldn’t understand anything you said!”
  7. Don’t Argue – I once saw on a famous speaker’s blog comments a verbal insult from someone. The speaker responded by continuing the attack and redirecting it at his assailant. I felt this showed a lack of maturity by bringing himself down to the level of the man who insulted him. You’ll look more secure and confident if you can redirect and brush aside criticism than if you engage in an argument.
  8. Train Your Ego - My suggestion is to actively run towards as much harsh criticism as you can. It will desensitize you to the bite of one particular comment and give you the ability to see yourself more fairly.

Now that you have some pain-killers for the attack, here’s how to ask for more:

  1. Say Thanks – Some companies pay consultants millions of dollars to come by and show them how they are doing a bad job. At least some people will do it for free. Thank them so you don’t have to pay heavy consultant bills later.
  2. Honesty Policy – Develop a policy for honesty where you encourage people who give you honest feedback. I’ve wrote about this topic several times on my blog, and I’ve gotten many suggestions from readers who prefaced their ideas with, “I’m saying this because I know you won’t take it personally.” How many ideas would I have lost if I hadn’t created an honesty policy?
  3. Don’t Justify – In the face of criticism, you might feel the urge to explain or justify yourself. My advice is to avoid it unless it is specifically asked from you. The reason is that justification not only admits your insecurity, but it makes the other person think you aren’t listening.
  4. Experiment with Embarrassment – If you aren’t making a fool of yourself routinely, you probably aren’t being ambitious enough. Take criticism as a sign that you are experimenting regularly.
  5. Give People the Sugar – Give people the sugar-coating, so they can give the honest suggestions. Frame questions so they can deliver feedback in a non-offensive manner. “What could I have most improved?” “If you had to say something, what did you like least?”
  6. Be Positive - If someone criticizes, translate them into positive suggestions and discuss it with them. The translation informs the person that you have a thick-skin and are using the advice.
  7. “Thanks, I’ll think about that.” – Five words to end the conversation and give yourself time to process any particularly crushing information. This keeps you from starting an argument with a person which can only defeat an honesty policy.
  8. “I Understand, But Disagree.” – Those four words are your only comeback. I’ve had people tell me I should stop writing, speaking or change something I felt strongly about. Calmly stating those four words shows the person that it isn’t a topic of discussion, but shows everyone else that you are open to all suggestions.

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