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Handling Criticism: 5 Tools to Help You Grow a Thick Skin

Handling Criticism: 5 Tools to Help You Grow a Thick Skin

Mugato vs Rhino by JD Hancock at Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock/4355523550/

    Face it, nobody likes being criticized. But unless you plan to spend your life hiding under a rock, you’re going to feel the sting of criticism at some point or other.

    The fear of that sting can keep us playing smaller than our potential, or even shut us down entirely. This puts us in a bind because whether the goal is to build a business, bring a product to market, sing an aria, or learn to paint, we often need feedback in order to refine and craft our work into its best, most optimal form.

    Learning to handle criticism, therefore, may be one of the most important skills required for success in any field.

    Here are five tools that will help you grow a thick skin:

    1. Find a Thick-Skinned Role Model

    Although it’s easy to believe that being criticized means we did something wrong, the reality is that receiving criticism is a hallmark of doing cutting-edge, important work.

    Getting a negative response means that you’ve hit a nerve; it tells you a lot more about the criticizer’s trigger point than it does about you.

    Look at Madonna, Lady Gaga, Hilary Clinton, Gloria Steinem. These are really polarizing women who hit a nerve in our culture, and have gotten a ton of criticism as a result. You may not like their work or what they stand for, but the people who criticize them are definitely threatened by them.

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    Think of artists like Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, or the beloved Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel). These folks were so ahead of their time they were utterly rejected at first, only to be embraced later in their careers (or after they died) when the rest of the culture caught up.

    Having a thick-skinned role model can help keep you forging ahead when the critics threaten to pull you down, so take a moment and think of someone you admire for their ‘sticktoitiveness,’ despite critical reactions to their work.

    Consciously reminding yourself of even one person who inspires you in this way can help you to remember what’s possible in life. You might even want to print out their picture, or quotes by them, to post near your workspace.

    2. Reframe Criticism as Positive Fuel

    Years ago, when I was starting out learning the art and craft of calligraphy, I was once invited by a master teacher to show him my portfolio. I was reluctant to hand it over and hear his criticisms, until he assured me, “I’m just going to tell you how you could make your work better.” With that simple statement, my fear dropped away and I was eager to hear his feedback.

    Not all of our critics will be so gentle, unfortunately, but with a shift of mindset, even the most negative comments can be useful to us.

    In his book, Uncertainty, Jonathan Fields tells a story about Rosamund Zander, co-author (with her husband, Benjamin Zander) of the book, The Art of Possibility. The Harvard Business School had sent an early draft out to readers before Zander felt it was ready to go, and readers responded with some pretty negative comments. Instead of being flattened by the feedback, however, Zander was surprised to find herself very interested in what the readers had to say.

    “I didn’t quite understand it at the time,” she writes, “but I thought, ‘If they haven’t understood what I’m trying to say, then perhaps I haven’t conveyed it as well as I could have.’ So I saw it as their comments actually gave me clues on how to communicate my ideas better. With that perspective, even the most negative reader seemed to be on my team. I was surprised at how little the ‘criticism’ hurt, that it didn’t go too deep, and realized that I wasn’t knocked over by it, but that it was useful for me.”

    Reframing criticism as something useful can empower and fuel you to keep going and make your work even better.

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    3. Separate Fact from Interpretation

    When you get negative feedback, it can be tempting to interpret it as providing factual information about you. If I submit an article for publication or enter a painting in a juried competition and get rejected, for example, it’s easy to leap to thoughts like, “My work sucks. I suck.”

    This is where it’s important to look at the facts.

    If my work is rejected, that doesn’t actually tell me anything about me or my work. All I really know is that this particular work wasn’t compelling to this particular audience at this particular moment.

    The truth is, good and bad are subjective calls. It’s not accurate to call anything wonderful or sucky; there’s only what a particular person or audience feels is wonderful or sucky.

    When we can separate fact from interpretation, negative feedback can offer valuable tactical information.

    For example, if you try to sell a product to a particular audience, and they aren’t buying, this might be a clue that you need to be clearer in your promotional messaging. Or it might be a clue that it’s time to seek out a different audience entirely!

    Separating fact from interpretation helps relieve the sting, and can allow you to use feedback to improve what you do.

    4. Ignore Anyone on the Sidelines

    There are some cases where feedback simply is not useful at all. Brené Brown, TED speaker and author of The Gifts of Imperfection, among other books, has gotten comments on her videos like, “If I looked like Brené Brown, I’d embrace imperfection too.”

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    Ouch.

    These kinds of pot shots have nothing to do with the work in question. They may hurt worst of all (they’re designed to!), yet they have nothing of value to give us.

    Brown likens comments like this to insults screamed from the stands at the gladiators fighting in the arena below. It’s easy to tell someone else they can’t fight their way out of a paper bag when you’re sitting safely out of harm’s way.

    When you’re sifting through feedback to determine what to pay attention to, ask yourself if your critics are offering opinions that are truly useful for you.

    If they’re not fellow ‘gladiators in the arena,’ or ideal customers/potential recipients of your work, they’re likely trolls hanging about on the sidelines. Ignore them.

    5. Find the Shiny, Red Button

    All of this reframing is well and good when you’re able to maintain neutrality, but sometimes that just isn’t the way things roll. Sometimes someone shoots a criticism arrow at you, and it cuts you to the core.

    For each of us, there is a particular criticism (or criticisms) that really cuts us deeply. Perhaps it rolls right off your back when someone says you’re not smart, but if they tell you you’re lazy or unprofessional, it pushes your buttons and sends you off your rocker.

    The reason a certain criticism will cut so deeply is that you already have a belief or a concern that maybe it’s true.

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    If you look at your own trigger criticisms, you may be able to cast back in your memory to when those beliefs about yourself first got laid in. The truth is, whenever we have a strong, painful reaction to something, it’s almost always because of some hurt or series of hurts somewhere in the past.

    When we get hurt in a particular way, especially by people who are very big and important in our world—like parents, teachers, or close friends—or if we get hurt in the same way enough times, we start to believe it. Then that belief becomes a big, shiny, red button with a hair trigger that can get pushed very easily.

    I got a message as a very young child that I was selfish. Then in my first marriage, whenever I wasn’t able to meet his needs, my husband declared that I was selfish. Even when my friends and family reflected back that I was generous and loving, my husband’s story that I was selfish hooked right into those stories from my childhood, so my belief that I was selfish got strengthened and blown out of proportion.

    For years, the slightest comment that I was acting in my own self-interest would throw me into a frenzy of self-doubt and anxiety. I spent a ridiculous amount of energy bending over backwards in order to try and prove that I wasn’t selfish!

    The criticism itself is not the real problem here; the real problem is the beliefs we hold about ourselves.

    The good news is that noticing what criticisms cut us the most can show us what those beliefs are, so that criticism can become a valuable tool for self-growth.

    So there you have it—my five favorite tools for handling criticism. With these tools in your box, hopefully the next criticism lob that comes your way will roll right off your back.

    Do you have any to add?

    Featured photo credit: Mugato vs Rhino by JD Hancock at Flickr via flickr.com

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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