Dealing with and dishing out criticism

Continuing from my last post about dealing with people I can’t stand, one thing that has become a pet peeve of mine is blind optimism whenever I share my opinion. Granted, I don’t share my opinion unless I’m asked (aside from posting in this blog, ha ha!), but as I’ve discovered, the moment I speak my mind is the moment my words paint me a target for criticism, especially from people who are unaware that they are being critical.

Take for example, the blind optimist: whenever I criticize her partner, she immediately cuts me off and tells me to think positively, to appreciate him and see him for what he is worth. Her points–whether or not they are valid–are one thing, but the issue there is that she is blinding herself with her optimism. Even if what I’m pointing out is true (in one case, that he has no manners and belches out loud at the table and laughs), her argument “But at least he’s very generous and he’s taking us out to eat, you should recognize that and see him for what he truly is” comes off more like she’s making an excuse for his behavior.

It is okay to have faults–we’re human, after all. Criticism isn’t necessarily an attack on the person, let alone his behavior or his attitude. If anything, whenever I criticize, I don’t just tell people that they are being morons: I tell them how and why, as I see it, and I offer possible solutions for improvement. In the case of the public belcher, there is no doubt that he is generous, and I’m not disregarding that because he is being rude by belching at the table, I’m just pointing out something that’s questionable.

Now, I’m not pointing it out to make fun of him, nor does it label him a moron or a jerk. If anything, I’m saying “Hey man, you’re pretty awesome and generous! By the way? Belching at the table? Totally not you. But if you curb that, you could totally win more clients when you charm them with your generosity and gentlemanly behavior!”

That’s an example of constructive criticism. I’m criticizing, but I’m not belittling or insulting. In Timothy Ferriss’s book The Four Hour Workweek, he lists a good strategy for inception, because most people don’t like criticism, no matter how well-meant it is due to the association with it being an attack on their egos. By inception, I mean being able to get your criticism out without coming off like a jerk-off, in order to increase the possibility of them  actually listening and–gasp–taking your point into consideration! It’s the criticism sandwich, in which you start out with a compliment, then “by the way [insert criticism here]”, then finish with another compliment. They don’t even notice the criticism most of the time, and it softens the blow with two compliments.

One of my biggest pet peeves came from a few former “friends” telling me useless “criticism” when they tell me things like “you can’t even throw a punch”, or “you have no sense of rhythm”, and “your music and your fighting style both suck”. The worst part about these “friends” is that they get angry with me when I get upset over them criticizing me. The truth is, most people can’t handle criticism, because like I said above, it feels worse than being punched in the face. Here, it’s not just about me being unable to handle criticism: it’s that this is useless criticism.

When you criticize someone in an insulting manner and don’t give them something to work with to improve and refine their shortcomings, you might as well just stab their hearts with a knife. You come off like a jerk, they get hurt, they don’t listen, they become resentful, and (usually subconsciously) work against your criticism, to the detriment of themselves and your annoyance.

In my experience, the criticism sandwich works well. Otherwise, I try to ask people about their behavior, and why they do it, to see if they are aware of it. I tell them what I think and feel, and then see if they’re interested in going outside of their mode of behavior and thought. I criticize not to degrade them, but to help them become better people, and more pleasant to be around. When they don’t want to listen, I say fine. I then evaluate how much it’s really worth it for me to be around these people if I have to constantly criticize  and correct them, because we obviously aren’t getting along that well. If you’re surrounded by people you try to correct all the time, you really should be asking yourself why you’re with them, and recognize that you’re coming off as being dogmatic, like a religious fundamentalist (think overzealous Bible-thumpers from Kansas).

Taking criticism on the other hand, is another thing. Getting beyond the fact that lots of people fail to communicate with sensitivity and consideration of your feelings, they can have some valid points. I like to filter and dissect what people say and extract the main point rather than the poor communication and presentation. Believe me, it takes a lot of filtering to get something good even out of bad criticism, such as my “friends” telling me “you can’t even throw a punch”.

Firstly, I look at who they are and what they have. The “friend” who told me I can’t throw a punch comes from a boxing background. I don’t. I’ve studied boxing recently, but I studied mostly Chinese and Southeast Asian styles, where the punches are vastly different, such as in Wing Chun, Muay Thai. So I may not throw a punch the way he was taught to. Big deal.

Secondly, I look at where he is basing his criticism on. The last time he saw me throw a punch was in 2006–when I first started learning. It’s 2011, and I’ve had many years of practice, and he hasn’t seen me or interacted with me besides a total of five visits and mostly e-mails or phone calls–always me contacting him rather than the other way around. So much for insight.

Thirdly, I look for consistency. The guy is no trainer because he hasn’t done much since high school a decade ago, nor have we interacted as much as I have with my trainers at the gym. My trainers are in a better position to assess me from our daily interaction than he does, as well as formal training and expertise to see if my technique has improved. So much for authority and consistency.

Lastly, I look for intent. Does he care about me looking like a fool or that I’m able to punch effectively or efficiently when the situation arises? Is he saying that I might as well not fight because I’m not built well enough? Or is he trying to point out that he is a better fighter by making me look like I don’t know how to fight?

This last point could easily also be the first, but the reason I look at it last is because if I do this first, then I end up not being as objective as I could be by rationalizing his insights based on our personal relationship instead. By going through the first three steps, it’s easier to take apart the criticism and not be affected personally.

What do we have here? Well, my ego is a lot less bruised than it was when he said I can’t throw a punch. But is he an idiot? Nope. He’s just not someone whose opinion I have difficulty taking into consideration because his intent and his attitude are not supportive at all, nor is his basis for criticism.

These are some of the tools I use to criticize without appearing to be a jerk, and how to take criticism from jerks. What this all boils down to is this: don’t take things personally. People are oblivious. That includes me, you, and the rest of the world. Sometimes we are aware of things others aren’t, other times we are oblivious to the simplest things.

A good visualization to think of when you’re pointing things out to someone in your criticism should be like you are telling them that they have a booger sticking out of their nose that they can and should wipe off, instead of pointing at a big pimple on their face and laughing at it. After all: good friends will tell you that you’ve got something on your face and help you get rid of it so that you can fix it and go out there and win over new friends and fans. Jerks will laugh at your imperfections without realizing that they have not much themselves, especially with what they brag about to hide their own shortcomings.

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