Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Construing Criticism -- Constructive, Destructive, and Trying Not to Make That Face While You Get It

I do not take criticism well. Constructive/destructive, my inner voice thinks that you are a jerk the moment you suggest to me that I might not be perfect. Never mind that I spend a lot of energy every day wondering if people see my imperfections, and quite a few more praying that they won't. However, confront me logic and facts (or illogic and meanness), and my inner monologue is going to call you names.

Note, however, it's the "inner" voice that does this; I have learned, painfully, over the years not to say what immediately comes to mind, no matter how funny it sounds in my head. There are HR departments out there blissfully unaware of what they have been spared; but this is how it should be. Part of being a grown up means not saying what you think, exactly at the moment you think it. Sometimes, it means not saying what you think, AT ALL.

Usually it means sizing up the situation and saying what you think in a professional, rational and reasonable way.

Now, if you're going to talk about what happened with someone who was ridiculously unreasonable and just plain mean, the filter between your brain and your mouth might not have as much work to do in terms of responding. But rarely are people so simple and idiotic in their criticism that they leave themselves open to a shot, and as a result, even if the shot looks tantalizingly easy to take, you probably ought not.

First, you are a grown up. While as someone's manager (or being managed by someone else) you can occasionally goof off and be child like, childish is pretty much the turn off the high way of employment: you may not leave the freeway for a while, but you are definitely speeding away from it.

Second, people who are viciously and thoughtlessly attacking you at work have bigger problems than you. Seriously. Very few people--even our special friends the sociopaths and psychopaths of the world--wander into work and let you have it verbally with no reason other than the voices in his or her head (ok, this suddenly makes my first couple of paragraphs seem like I'm a sociopath or a psychopath, but I assure you, I'm not). Usually there's spilled coffee, a verbal fit with someone else, bad traffic, sick children, lack of sleep, oncoming illness, death in the family....the list goes on, but the gist is, there is something else at play. That thing will still be with them when you're done tangling, and they know that, and so whatever petty revenges spring to mind are really nothing big to them. They aren't quite people with nothing to lose, but what's the point of fighting with a person in a position of irrationality, unless you're practicing your "Yelling" voice?

Third, people who are vicious without cause, while wrapped up in whatever is upsetting them, are, themselves, upset. Something is WRONG. When someone needs help, you try to help them. It's decent and kind. Just because they sound like a bear doesn't mean that they don't need help; try to look past the rage and give them space if needed.

Of course, this post is supposed to be about constructive criticism, which is the most common you'll run across in a work place (or at least what other people think is constructive criticism). From your boss suggesting you write shorter blog posts (SORRY) to people pointing out that a seemingly innocuous turn of phrase is NOT for some of your audience, there are things to consider and review.

Of course, my inner voice thinks they all suck. In the old days, it would paint my face with a look of incredulity and/or dislike. These days I've got it (mostly) under control, desperately trying to think of pictures of sleeping kittens or how much I dig it when my husband hugs me, instead. As an aside, this may be problematic because I relax and look a little "awwwww" afterward which is not what they were expecting, either, but if you had to choose between the two reactions, I'm betting you're hoping I'm thinking of kittens, too.

It isn't, however, just about listening to what they say. It's about what happens when they're done talking. A polite person would sum up what they thought they heard, and then say, very carefully "Thank you."

You are not required to tell them what will happen with their advice. With your boss, he/she might want to know, but typically summing up what they said and repeating it back so they know you heard following it with a "thank you" and then beating feet for the hills works just fine. You can consider how you feel about the advice later. The most important, thing, though, is to understand what you've been told, and thank that person for their feedback. Even if you hate their guts a thousand fold, the world would be a far more horrible place if people didn't give constructive criticism--seriously.

What do you do if you disagree with their criticism?

EXACTLY THE SAME THING. Fresh off of criticism is not the time to argue with it; most people will feel you're being "defensive" and shut down any logical arguments you might use to the contrary. Also, they won't feel as if you appreciated their comments if you immediately refute them. While people don't give constructive criticism for all the awesome thanks they receive, they do know when to NEVER give it again, and that's after someone blows up at them.

So you've said thank you and fled. Now what? Now you actually think about what you were told. If you are the type that gets benefit, you stop and chat with someone you trust about the commentary. You come to decide if a) you agree with the comments and come up with a plan to incorporate them so that you can improve yourself or b) if you respectfully disagree, and come up with a plan so that you don't come across in the way they found critical before.

If its your boss or your employee, you follow up with your thoughts and future plans. If its anyone else, let it go. The ship has sailed. As much as you may have been thinking about them and their words, there is a good chance they haven't had another thought about you since.

I will do a future blog post on actually giving constructive criticism, but I will leave that excitement for another day. I hope your heart is as aflutter as my own.

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