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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
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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?

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

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    Last Updated on July 20, 2021

    How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

    How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)
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    You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

    Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

    Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

    Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

    1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

    According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

    “Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

    Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

    Warming up

    If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

    If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

    Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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    1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
    2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
    3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

    Stay hydrated

    Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

    To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

    Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

    Meditate

    Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

    Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

    Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

    Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

    2. Focus on your goal

    One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

    Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

    Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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    Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

    If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

    3. Convert negativity to positivity

    There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

    ‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

    It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

    Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

    Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

    Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

    4. Understand your content

    Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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    However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

    “No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

    Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

    Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

    One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

    5. Practice makes perfect

    Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

    In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

    Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

    6. Be authentic

    There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

    Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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    Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

    To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

    With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

    Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

    7. Post speech evaluation

    Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

    Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

    We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

    You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

    Improve your next speech

    As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

    Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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    • How did I do?
    • Are there any areas for improvement?
    • Did I sound or look stressed?
    • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
    • Was I saying “um” too often?
    • How was the flow of the speech?

    Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

    If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

    Reference

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