3 Steps to Hearing Criticism

3 steps to hearing criticism

Criticism is a funny old thing. Where judgement comes out of one person’s mouth and is heard by another. But, oh, how much havoc it causes!

Imagine you are putting away the dishes and your partner comes in and comes out with “Why are you putting them away like that? That is so slow.”

There are so many ways to criticise. So many phrases and ways to put it. The main thing that is needed is a judgement, and a negative one at that. Interestingly, the intention behind it is often to make something better. Like if you tell someone that they are doing something wrong then they will change and it will be better. The problem is that, as we all know, change isn’t as easy as having someone tell you to do it a different way, or letting you know of their dislike about something. It is often a very ineffectual way of making something better. And I should note here – make it better in the mind of the person doing the criticising.
The intentions can also be less pure, like wanting to make oneself look better, or to gain more power in the exchange… but more on that later.

So your partner just came in and commented on how you are putting away the dishes. Do you go from your happy world of working away, feeling like sunshine, to feeling like you have walked into a cloud? Like you are a naughty school kid again. Or do you think, oh gee, thanks for pointing that out. I never would have thought I could be doing it faster. Or maybe you think, well they can think there is a better way, and maybe there is, but I am happy just pottering about in my own way. What is the rush anyway? Or do you flare up and go into the ‘don’t you tell me I am doing something wrong’ kind of reaction??

Just as there are many ways to criticise, there are also many ways to hear criticism. It can take the wind out of your sails, or it can be a way to hear someone else’s opinion on the matter, or it can even be helpful. It can also feel very disempowering. Like they are trying to get you to change by placing their opinion on you.

So we can’t just put ourselves in a bubble and avoid criticism, as much as we might try to do everything right by everyone. So, we all need a strategy to deal with criticism. Let’s break it down into three steps…

First, get really grounded and centred.

The idea is to keep yourself out of the stress response cycle. That means staying relaxed. So, do you already have a way that you do that? I find breath super powerful for this. You drop into your breath, and breathe like a relaxed person, and it keeps you nice and centred. Feeling your feet on the ground and connected to the earth can also be really helpful.

The next part is to hear without taking.

This is really hearing the words while holding the strong resolve that you don’t need to take on any part of it that doesn’t serve you. What that means is that you recognise it is their opinion, and it is up to you whether you take it on or not. You don’t have to take it personally, even if they meant it that way. It is your choice.

Aah, but in saying that it is a choice, let’s acknowledge that you have a lot of practice in making choices one way or another in your past. So let’s face it, choosing to make a different choice will require a lot of attention and practice.

There is also a nice little trick with this. Listen for what they are really (and very inadequately) trying to say underneath the criticism. This is kind of complex. Let’s use our example. Your partner comes in and comes out with “Why are you putting them away like that? That is so slow.”
Often, through our filters, we hear something like “You are doing it wrong, that is so slow.”
Or you could hear it as “I really care about you and I want you to have more time. I believe there is a way you could do it quicker if you wanted to.”

No matter how you hear it, remember that it is their opinion, you don’t need to take it on. And of course, if there is something useful in there for you, then you can take that part on.

That leads us into the last part – respond in a way that promotes understanding.

Ok, so if you have clicked into flight or fight, you might respond with –
“Stop having a go at me, I never see you putting them away” or
“I’m out of here, you do it then” or
“I was just …” (my personal Miss Defensive habit to kick)

If you have managed to keep your stress response at bay and listened with a searching for understanding, then you might respond with
“Thanks for looking out for me, I am happy just pottering.”

You also have the option of confronting that criticism head on. That can be by telling them how you feel and what you would like from them instead. If you go down this road, make sure you are owning your own reaction. Use I statements. Tell them how you feel, and most of all don’t blame them or turn the criticism around on them because this just continues a cycle where you can’t connect. Here is a little example of what it might look like.
“I am a bit annoyed that you are telling me I am slow. I would like you to respect that I work at my own pace. If you would like this done quicker, you are welcome to help.”

Is another option to just bite our tongue? I say no. I think we all need to learn how to communicate this stuff in a way that is empowering to both people. Rather than criticising each other, let’s take it further and move into something like “owned opinions” where the person making the judgement takes full responsibility for their opinion. And the person hearing it takes full responsibility for their reaction. This is important. Judgement often comes to call with anger and frustration, as does hearing it. So biting one’s tongue often means that the anger and frustration is repressed. And that isn’t good for anyone. The alternative course to criticism is to learn how to better process and own the judgements that are coming up.

And this is all so hard because it is ingrained in us. We have been playing out these patterns since we were kids. Learning this and living this is like any art. It takes awareness, it takes practice and it takes time.

Photo by Hamed Parham on flickr under a CC licence.

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