When criticized, all we hear is that there is something wrong with us. The immediate inner response is to close out the intention of the words and go into a defensive mode (fight or flight). We shut out the criticism and to justify (aloud or to oneself) why the criticism is wrong or unfair.
The problem is that negative experiences such as criticism have a habit of staying with one and raising their heads, or being remembered, just when we most need them to stay forgotten.
Example of negative recordings or remembered criticism
John needs to write a report for his boss’s boss, and things are just not going well. He is short of time, tired, worried about the report, scared of letting himself and his boss down. Even worse, what if he makes a fool of himself.
As he gets more worried about the task, more and negative memories flood his concentration. All are of past criticism. Memories of his boss saying, two years ago: “Even my fox-terrier could have done a better job”. Or, “I probably should have given it to someone who could think on their feet – like Sipho”. (John’s negative interpretation – she means I am useless, and the task should rather have gone to someone else but …. By implication, John is less capable than a dog, can’t think on his feet and Sipho is a better person than what he is.)
John remembers his father saying twenty years ago: “How could you have said that – you never think before you speak?” (John’s negative interpretation – there is something wrong with him, after all everyone else thinks speak.) As it happens, his father didn’t.
Then there was the time his grade 7 teacher said: “I’ve never met someone who struggled so to put over a simple point as you have in this essay”. (His negative interpretation: Obviously this means I could never express myself and can never do so.) And, what about the time John heard his grandmother laughing with friends saying that ten year old John “only opened his mouth to change feet”.
At the most inconvenient times, past criticisms raise their head and handicap us. Negative memories don’t make us feel confident, inspired, stimulated, motivated, sure of oneself and poised to make a great presentation or write an erudite and forceful report. Rather, the remembered criticisms hold us back. (There are things we can do about this, including building personal resilience, but that is a different conversation.)
What a terrible handicap criticism places on the recipient. It is counter-productive in a work or social environment. At work, it results in under-performance creates someone who lacks confidence and struggles to cope with problems. Such a person often becomes ‘toxic’ in and out of the workplace.
Before you criticize someone (or offer feedback) ask yourself
- why you are you doing so?
- what do you hope to achieve?
- and will criticism help?
Often criticism is better left unsaid. Too often it leaves the recipient feeling hurt, discouraged, angry, defensive or a combination of all these. It is rarely helpful, and generally does not leave the recipient open to new ideas.
- Have you ever been criticized in front of other people at a meeting? Remember how it made you feel? Did it include creative, cooperative, innovative, inspired, motivated. The answer is likely to be ‘NO’. If the answer is yes, what was it about the criticism, other than the need to ‘show them’ that resulted in the positive response?
- Sometimes we criticise others to make ourselves feel good! Think back over the last few occasions someone criticized you. Did you, or were you tempted to, go and find fault, however unfairly with others. Be honest with yourself.
- When something is going badly, do you remember other things that have gone wrong and feel dispirited, or doubt your ability or are just angry. Do old criticisms come back and haunt you? None of these lead to improved productivity so don’t put others in the same position.
Criticism is never pleasant. When it is, it is call praise. Some words with the same or similar meaning to criticism include censure, condemnation, reproach, deprecation, disparagement, disapproval, scathing, fault-finding, judgmental. None of these have a positive connotation or association and all have a negative meaning – they pull people down. Note the absence of the word ‘feedback’.
Sometimes criticism is necessary, but usually it is not. Have you heard someone say: “I call a spade a spade”, or “I call it like I see it”? Usually these statements are simply an excuse for someone to be nasty as they tell you something bad about yourself “for your own good”.
If you must criticise someone, and chances are you don’t have to because instead you could provide feedback, emphasize or explore (sincerely) the positive aspects of the report, situation or behaviour first. If necessary, look at the individual role in the larger picture. Try this: First get the person to relax and feel good and warm, before you explain your problem with the report/behaviour and then ask them for their opinion and how they can change the situation.
How successful you are when criticising depends on the emotional intelligence and resilience of the recipient but also on your relationship (including trust and sincerity) with the individual, the culture of your company/department/team and how much practice you have had. Always try to provide feedback rather than criticism. It is all about your contract with the company – do no harm and work toward increased productivity.