Don’t Let Others Control You: Think Your Way Through Critical Statements

(Part 1 of 3)

Do critical statements have you seething late at night?

Picture your most recent heated dispute with a friend, boss, or neighbor. Whether the subject matter at hand was missing a lunch date or forgetting to turn the office lights off at the end of the day, chances are the dispute started when someone said something unpleasant to someone else.

When I worked in upscale retail stores stocking $29.95 soft red Santa bags, the latest super hyped Harry Potter DVD, and beautiful $10.60/roll silver and gold specked wrapping paper, I used to cringe whenever anyone (usually a manager) said some variation of “don’t take it personally” or “the customer is always right” when confronted with criticism or conflict of any kind.

I heard “don’t take it personally” when customers with shiny Platinum American Express cards cursed at sales clerks making $8.00/hour desperately ringing people up at the cash register and answering phone calls at the same time during the holiday season. I heard “don’t take it personally” when a co-worker with a temper yelled others on the sales floor and then slammed the employee lounge door so hard it came off its hinges. I heard “don’t take it personally” when a manager routinely said things to clients such as “this is the third time I’ve faxed this document to you, I’d better get an answer immediately” before slamming the phone down so hard that people in the parking lot outside jumped.

I used to wonder, if we’re not supposed to take someone articulating a variation of the message “you’re lazy and stupid” personally, how should we take it?

Do You Have to Accept Verbal Criticism Blindly?

If someone punched you in the mouth, threw a phone at you (think Russell Crowe), or even grabbed you by the collar, no one would say “don’t take it personally.” They’d say, “arrest that physically aggressive person or at least ban them from this establishment.” Frequently any sign of physical aggression is often punished or chastised severely, but expressing emotional and psychological vitriol is acceptable.

While you can’t eliminate avoid all forms of negative feedback, defusing the critical statements of others is not only possible, it can be a fun challenge.

Creative Criticism Management Strategy #1- Evaluate Criticism

Sometimes people criticize others or say “don’t take criticism personally” because they don’t know how to handle a conflict more creatively.

For instance, whenever I ask for elaboration of the statement “don’t take it personally,” I seldom get more than an uncomfortable look. Perhaps because “don’t take it personally” is often another way of saying “just handle being treated poorly as best you can because I don’t how to intercede in your problem.”

I can’t staff this store adequately so “don’t take customer criticism about waiting in long lines personally.” I’m afraid to confront this temperamental employee directly “so just don’t take his tirades personally.” I’d love to fire the manager who’s incredibly rude to clients and coworkers, but unfortunately he knows too much about what really goes on around here so just “don’t take his unprofessional behavior personally.”

By stepping back and saying to yourself, “am I being criticized because the real problem at hand isn’t being addressed,” you gain some perspective on the situation.

Creative Criticism Management Strategy #2 – Respond Objectively to Criticism

When you respond defensively to a critical statement, you often tacitly acknowledge its validity and escalate a tense situation. For instance, let’s say a good buddy writes an unpleasant text message saying, “Why have you been ignoring me lately?””Why have you been ignoring my calls lately.” Your instinct may be responding, “Give me a break, I’m tired of hearing about your mother-in-law’s health issues and I’m swamped at work.”

However, instead of responding aggressively to the implied criticism in the e-mail you can reply more objectively by saying, “Thanks for letting me know how you feel.” A neutral response to criticism addresses the issue at hand without conceding that the critical statement is justified.

Creative Criticism Management Strategy #3 – Name Your Emotional Response to Criticism

When someone criticizes you, immediately criticizing them back is natural. This may be why an oft cited anger management technique consists of counting to 10 before responding to a critical statement. However new neurological research indicates that discussing your feelings calms your brain’s emotional center. Therefore naming your emotions can be even more powerful than reciting numbers in your head. For instance, spending 10 seconds mentally saying “I feel angry, humiliated, sad, powerless…” often defuses tension by objectifying rather than personalizing criticism.

We’re all guilty of criticizing others without considering the impact of that criticism. However, responding to the criticism of others creatively can be the first step in breaking the vicious cycle of straining relationships by criticizing others and being criticized in return.

Stay tuned for the remaining articles in this series:

Part 2- More Creative Strategies for Handling Criticism

Part 3- The Art of Criticizing Others