Got Criticism? Always Consider the Source

Consider the Source

The best advice I’ve received about dealing with criticism was delivered by my mother. I was about twelve-years-old and my feelings were hurt. After listening to my story of woe, she said three words that caught my attention, spun me around, and changed my life. Her words were: “Consider the source.”

Since then, this simple phrase, along with the neutrality-cultivating “That’s interesting”, have saved me countless hours of trying to figure out the who, what, where, when and why of my “perceived” erroneous ways at home and at the workplace.

Why is “consider the source” so powerful when dealing with criticism?

  1. First, it provides a framework to help decipher if you trust and value the opinion of the person who is delivering the criticism.
  2. Second, it gives you a chance to decide whether the negative feedback is valid … or not.
  3. Third, for some magical reason, this phrase has the ability to temporarily diffuse emotions, just like a dab of aloe vera on a sunburn. This means that you have an opportunity to be fully present and think more clearly, without the cloudiness offered by revved-up feelings.
  4. Fourth, if you decide that the person delivering the criticism is a trusted source and the feedback is valid, you can make the choice to constructively learn from the experience and integrate it into your way of showing up in the world.
  5. On the other hand, if you decide that the criticism is not being delivered from a place of integrity, accuracy and goodwill, you can quickly sweep it into the dust bin and carry on with your day, secure in the knowledge that you at least took the time to process the criticism in a healthy, open, and proactive way … meaning that you don’t act and feel like a victim.

Like most things in life, the more you practice, the better you become at automatically moving into “consider the source” mode when criticism strikes.

Tackling Negative Feedback in a Constructive Manner

Let’s say that you are being criticized at work by someone you report to — what can you do?  What is the best approach? Do you have a strategy?

According to communications expert Jack Griffin, there is a six step process that you can use to respond to negative feedback in a constructive manner. Here are excerpts from his guidelines. I have placed my comments in italics:

Step 1: Accept criticism as an opportunity. All criticism, even unmerited criticism is useful to you. Criticism, after all, may actually point out things that you are doing ineffectively or poorly—things you could do better.” I agree that criticism is useful, but I would also lean in the direction of  using the “consider the source” approach to determine just how useful the feedback is to you in the context of your personal work ethic, value system, aspirations, and goals.

Step 2: Fight the impulse to respond defensively. Listen and learn.” When being criticized, it is important to have presence of mind and not to get caught up in an emotional knee-jerk reaction. If you feel yourself tilting that way, keep repeating “That’s interesting.”  It is the equivalent to counting to ten—hmm, come to think of it, counting to ten might be a good idea too. 

Step 3: Realize that the criticism is a perception, nothing more.” Jack Griffin gives an example to illustrate his point, and then goes on to say: “Explore with yourself, and your boss, the reasons behind the criticism.” From my experience, critical thoughts and actions often sprout from the garden of misunderstanding and assumption. I’ve also discovered that an honest chat over a cup of tea/coffee is often an acceptable antidote. That being said, this strategy only works when there is certain level of openness on both sides, a task orientation, and a willingness to listen and learn. If these three items are in short supply, you are wasting your breath … and your time.

Step 4: Do not meekly accept unjust or unfounded criticism, but don’t reject it. Learn from it.  Learn about creating more positive impressions.”  To me, this step is an invitation to put your best food forward. It also suggests that we all need to learn to value and appreciate ourselves enough to stand in our power.  I like to encourage people to back-up critical statements about others with facts and examples. I also interject two questions: “Can you help me understand where you are coming from?” and “If the shoe was on the other foot, what would you do?”

Step 5: Seize the opportunity to respond to criticism, to communicate in a way that can strengthen and enhance your relationship with your boss.”  Basically, I feel that this means making sure that your communication addresses three key areas: I hear what you are saying, I will review the problem/situation, and I appreciate your input. 

Step 6: While listening to criticism, demonstrate that you are hearing the criticism.” According to Jack Griffin, one way to do this is to monitor your non-verbal communication. He offers four examples and one tip:

  • Make and maintain eye contact with your boss.
  • Monitor your own signals of resistance, such as hand placed over the mouth or on the forehead as if to shade-and partially conceal-the eyes, or arms folded across the chest. Such gestures are powerful signals of resistance that tell your boss you are determined not to hear him/her.
  • If possible, you and your boss should be seated during the discussion, since standing suggest and promotes face-to-face confrontation.
  • If you must stand, it is best to keep your hands by your sides and to avoid the temptation to place your arms akimbo (hands on your hips). This suggests defiance and sends a provocative message.
  • TIP: Your objective is not to appear passive, but open, willing to listen, to learn, to change, and to cooperate.”

It is wise to anticipate that somewhere along the happy trail, you will be the recipient of negative feedback; it happens to everyone. This being so, it makes a lot of sense to have a strategy in place to manage yourself as you navigate through this experience.

Finally, I’d like to share with you my favourite quote on criticism. It is called The Man in the Arena: 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt




1 thought on “Got Criticism? Always Consider the Source”

  1. Nicely put. In particular, “accepting criticism as opportunity” is actually quite deep. It’s more than just an opportunity to “learn from your mistakes” – it’s an opportunity to see clearly your impact on, and place in, the world around you. SOMEBODY is criticizing you. That in itself can be important data, whether the criticism is accurate or not. Herein lies an oft-overlooked opportunity to explore the reality in which you’re operating. How did you get to this place where criticism is coming? What is the actual terrain of this place? What assumptions have you made about your role and your colleagues that can be challenged and illuminated in this moment?

    Consider the source indeed…and the source much more than the vessel through which criticism is delivered – it’s a whole complex of forces and circumstances and personalities that are being brought to your attention.

    Thanks, Mildred Lynn, for the great post.

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