Friday, May 15, 2009

I am fascinated with the stories people tell themselves, the narratives by which we define our identities. Our stories - and our selves - grow as we encounter new experiences...and new challenges.

You know, ideally.

In reality, when challenge makes us question the story of ourselves, it can be hard to do anything useful with it at all.

I'm talking about criticism. Whatever our role, other people have a huge advantage over us - they can see us from the outside. That doesn't make them right - unfortunately.

It's bad enough that criticism hurts, but we can't even assume it's right. Many naysayers will criticize out of pique or resentment or misguided protectiveness.

When we hear something that hurts, how do we know what to do with it? How do we decide whether to accept it and use it as a growth opportunity, or dismiss it and believe in ourselves despite the naysayers?

It's ok, even important, to admit when the criticism - and even critique, which is, certainly, invaluable, and is supposed to be supportive and beneficial - stings or contradicts a strongly held opinion. If we secretly resent a challenge to our work or our decisions, and we refuse to admit it even to ourselves, that hidden feeling disrupts our understanding of ourselves and we begin to feel out of sync - which will only lead to further dissonance and lack of a position from which to evaluate feedback.

In the article "Criticism: Taking the Hit," Judith Sills, Ph.D, suggests:

Sulk, hurt, complain, or just don't think about it - for a maximum of 3 days. Then ask yourself these three questions:

What part of this is true?

Have I ever heard this before?

What would I have to give up if I changed?

Of course, it runs in the other direction as well. When you need to give negative feedback, be just as careful. Sills provides these tips:

  1. Pair every negative with a positive: "You are an amazing problem solver, but you aren't following up with the paperwork."
  2. Give feedback on observable behavior only, don't speculate on internal attitudes.
  3. Be excruciatingly specific about both the problem and the expected solution: "When you do X, it creates problem Y. Next time, try this instead... "
  4. Extend yourself to maintain the relationship. After criticism, people withdraw. Counter that by making friendly conversation.
  5. Remember, reward is the most powerful change agent. Go lightly over what's wrong and be heavy-handed with what's working or will work in the future.
Paying attention to motives and feelings when criticism or critique is necessary can also help in understanding what's on the other side of the table when it's received. When we feel attacked, we sink into ourselves for protection, and that's fine. But we can't use the feedback until we pull ourselves out of the whirlpool of subjectivity and reach some balance.

There's room in the stories we tell ourselves for everything - we just have to concentrate on rounding out our own characters.

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