Donald Trump & Melania (Courtesy of Boss Tweed via flickr)
Donald Trump & Melania (Courtesy of Boss Tweed via flickr)

I’ve noticed lately that people aren’t very good at handling criticism, even when they’ve asked for it.

Our natural tendency when given advice or criticism is to become defensive and upset. We try to convince the person they’re wrong (or at least to see it from our perspective) which, ironically, has the exact opposite of the intended effect.

Know what the single most effective way is to disarm criticism?  Agree with it.

You can imagine some common situations where this might come up…

  • You’re making a presentation at work and afterward someone asks a “hostile” question which challenges you in front of everyone.
  • You’re selling your car and a potential buyer comments that the color or condition is really not to their liking.
  • A friend/mentor/family member tries to offer you some honest feedback which you feel is totally unwarranted.

Most people will react to all of these in a similar way: a defensive and reactive position.  You can immediately see it in their eyes: it is an emotional response and they get upset.

  • “Actually I made the chart that way on purpose.  I included the extra data because it’s important to the overall message and the other people I showed it to didn’t think it detracted from the presentation at all.”
  • “Really, you don’t like the color?  That’s strange because I get compliments on it all the time.  It’s hard to find this color actually, it’s a rare commodity.”
  • “What do you mean I’m not focused?  I work really hard.  I mean just because I’m doing those two things doesn’t mean I can’t put all my effort into it!”

In each of these cases, have you convinced the person of your point of view?  Most likely the answer is no.  In fact, you have further reinforced their original belief in their own mind.  If you could spell out the internal dialog going on in their heads it would be something like this:

  • “Woa!  I guess I hit a nerve with that one.  SOMEBODY can’t take advice…not only does the chart suck but he/she is in denial about it, nice!”
  • “Great…you love the color idiot.  You’re not buying it, I am, and I’m losing interest by the second because you’re starting to annoy me.”
  • “Geez…I guess I won’t bring that up again.  It’s a shame because we’ve all know this about John for years…it’s obvious to all of us but we just can’t seem to get it through to him.  Maybe if a few more of us mention it.”

There is an important rule behind all of this that I’d like you to remember:

The more defensive you become, the more likely that the person criticizing you is actually right!

Really…think about it for a moment.  What if someone came up to you and said “Your name is Bubba Gump”.  Would this upset you?  Since your name is obviously NOT Bubba Gump, this is a ridiculous accusation and the chances of this getting an emotional response out of you are slim.

But what if someone came up to you and said “You smell bad”.  Well, it’s still pretty ridiculous but you know what, we all do smell bad at times, and hey…there may be a little bit of truth to that.  You might start to get a little bit defensive: “What?  I don’t smell bad, what are you talking about?”

Now if we look at a statement that is even farther along the spectrum: “You are actually the most selfish person that I know.  All of your friends talk about you behind your back and say how selfish you are.  If you dropped dead tomorrow no one would care.”  Now THAT is likely to get an emotional response!  Why?  Because there is some truth to it.  We all are a little selfish sometimes and think about ourselves probably more than we should.  And, even though its unpleasant to think about, if we did drop dead tomorrow a lot of people wouldn’t care!  Damnit, they’re right and that pisses me off!  (An emotional response.)

Since I’ve learned this, it has played out to be true in my own life.  Whenever someone makes a comment that really gets to me, I’ll end up finding out (usually much later) that they were actually mostly right.  Think back to an example in your own life when a comment really got to you personally.  Did it end up being true?

How To Diffuse Any Criticism

Hopefully that gives you a little insight into criticism and when you should take it seriously.  Now lets focus on how to diffuse criticism that you don’t want.

At the beginning I said that the secret to diffusing criticism is to agree with it.  I can hear you asking, “but Brian, what if the criticism really is wrong??  I can’t just agree with it!”

True, but you can do what I call “tacitly agreeing” or “indirect agreement”.  You do this by saying something like “thats a good point, thanks for that” or “you know you’re right, there might be some truth to that, I’ll have to consider it”.

Have you really agreed to anything?  No.  But you have taken the wind out of their sails.

Imagine for a moment someone giving a speech in front of a huge audience.  The speaker finishes and Q&A begins where the audience can ask questions.  The first question comes from a very hostile listener who clearly disagrees with everything that has been said.  He or she begins their rant (disguised as a question), very eager to have the stage for a moment, and begins to insult and criticize every notion that the speaker has brought up.  The rest of the audience is silently thinking to themselves “wow this is really uncomfortable, this guy is really going at it”.  Finally, the speaker has a chance to respond.

There are really two ways he could respond, and I want you to think about what each response communicates to the audience.  The “subtext”, if you will.

The first response he could give would be to fight back against the questioner with as much force as was used against him.  He could get upset and use words like “obviously, you don’t understand the very basic premise of this concept if you’re going to say that, what a ridiculous thing to say”.  The audience would see his emotional response and think “wow that really got to him, he lost his composure”.  In the back of their minds they’ll also be thinking “you know if he got that upset by it, maybe the guy was at least partially right, now I’m not sure”.

The second response he could give would be to diffuse the criticism with tacit agreement.  ”You know [slight laugh], that’s a great point thank you for bringing that up.  I’ll take that under consideration.  Ok…next question over here…”  In other words: treat it as if the guy had just said “Your name is Bubba Gump!”  It’s not even worth answering.  It’s as if a child had said it.  The audience’s perception is now the complete opposite: “wow that was really embarrassing for the guy who just asked that ridiculous question, he looked like a total idiot”.

Getting emotionally upset gives your power away to the criticizer.

Watch The Master Of This At Work: Donald Trump

Whether you love him or hate, the next time you see Donald Trump on some news show, watch a master of diffusing criticism at work.  One of the other guests will usually rail into him, calling him all sorts of bad things and accusing him of publicity stunts, business failures, and misogyny.  What is Trump’s response?  He will usually tacitly agree and change the subject, the whole time as cool as a cucumber.  You’ll never see him get upset.

Someone could say “Mr. Trump is quite possibly one of the most dishonest people that I’ve seen in recent memory, he routinely exaggerates his business dealings, and I know personally a number of people who will never deal with him again.”

The host will then turn it back over to Trump, and ask for his response.  ”That’s right Larry, I mean this is an exciting time for the New York real estate market, and it’s great to see so many new people getting involved, there is going to be a small fortune made over the next few years by smart investors.”

The accuser is thinking “wait, what just happened?  I called him a liar and he is talking about real estate sounding so happy.  He made me look like a whiny little kid.  Now I’m upset!”  Meanwhile, the audience has all but forgotten and is focused on something else.

When taking criticism…

  • Tacitly agree and don’t get upset (this is how you lose your power)
  • Remember that the more upset you get, the more likely they were right
  • Don’t argue back, you’re not convincing people of anything
  • Finally, accept (and actively seek out) criticism from friends and mentors with an open mind.  You’ll find out things about yourself that everyone else has known for years but was too afraid to tell you.

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