The Subtle Art of Giving and Receiving Criticism
If you work in the corporate world, you are probably no stranger to receiving and possibly giving year-end reviews. If you are a mom, you are also no stranger to molding and shaping your children with expectations, feedback and critiques.
Whether you are on the giving end or the receiving end, feedback and criticism are unavoidable whether it’s personally or professionally. Hearing potentially negative things about yourself or telling someone else how they need to improve can be awkward at anytime of the year.
No matter how hard you work, it’s uncomfortable to be evaluated by others as the reviewee or to have to assess someone else as the reviewer. It puts you in a vulnerable state and can often create a “vulnerability hangover” where you are completely drained emotionally and physically.
Even if you consider yourself someone with a “thick skin”, the subtle art of giving and receiving criticism is still a skill that’s worth learning. Whether you’re on the receiving end in a formal review from your Tax Manager or on the giving end trying to help your child edit their English paper, knowing how to be the giver and receiver is helpful.
This week I’m going to discuss the difference between feedback and criticism and the subtle art of being on both the receiving end and the giving end.
The difference between feedback and criticism
In your day to day life you are probably asked many times for feedback and reviews like when you go to a doctor’s office, purchase something on Amazon or take an airline to travel. You may also use other people’s feedback and reviews before you hire someone or purchase something.
For example, before I go anywhere on vacation I always check Trip Advisor and read the reviews and comments about the places and activities I’m planning on visiting. I also scour the reviews of a book I’m interested in reading to get a feel for whether the book is worth my time and check the reviews on Open Table before I try a new restaurant.
If we live at a time when reviews and feedback are so common then why aren’t we better at giving and receiving feedback and criticism? To answer that, let’s distinguish between the two by first looking at the dictionary definitions:
Criticize (dictionary) – to find fault; judge unfavorably or harshly; to make judgments as to merits and faults
Feedback (dictionary) – a reaction or response to a particular process or activity
The important thing to notice is that the dictionary definition of feedback isn’t about a person, it’s about the actions or process the person(s) was involved in. Although both involve an evaluation, criticism uses the words “judge” and “fault” making it seem much more personal to the giver or receiver.
Now that we are clear on the dictionary definitions, I want to give you a different perspective:
Criticize (new perspective) – the action one takes which is caused by negative emotions; action taken with the intention to release negative emotions in order to feel better
Feedback (new perspective)– the action one takes in order to help or convey information; action taken from a neutral place with the intention of informing
As you can see it really all comes down to intention and how you or others were feeling prior to taking action. Whether you are on the receiving or giving end, determining whether it’s criticism or feedback will always be based on the intention behind it.
Just knowing this delineation is the first important step to learning the subtle art of giving and receiving criticism. It could mean the difference between a powerful opportunity for growth and a frustrating game of blame.
When you are on the receiving end
Since reviews are everywhere it seems like more and more people are exercising their right to free speech. Therefore, everyone has an opinion and they’re not afraid to share it.
The important distinctions to make when you are on the receiving end of any type of personal or professional evaluation is to determine:
- Is it a fact or an opinion
- Is it feedback or criticism
To get clear about how to make these distinctions you need to first understand your brain a little better because it is the filtering system you use to categorize everything in your life. Your brain processes millions of bits of information everyday therefore it’s incredibly helpful to get to know the process better.
When it comes to deciphering between a fact or an opinion and feedback or criticism, your brain will involuntarily be swayed by what’s already familiar, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. It’s the reason why there are still people in the world today that really believe the Earth is flat.
Therefore, if you already believe that you aren’t good at your job, then when you receive your yearly review, you may see anything negative as an irrefutable fact and a criticism about you and your capabilities. Your brain will automatically filter this new information and confirm it against old beliefs.
The best way to handle this is to first become consciously aware of whether you are believing something is a fact or an opinion. Here is the difference:
- If it’s a fact, everyone would agree and it would NOT create a negative or positive feeling
- If it’s an opinion, others could agree or disagree and it usually creates either a negative or positive feeling
- Fact (from your boss) – “Your billable hours were lower this year by 100 hours”
- Opinion – “You aren’t as productive as everyone else in your department”
Once you’ve determined if something is a fact or an opinion, you will want to get clear about whether you are categorizing something as feedback or criticism. It’s helpful to do this both before (if possible) and after someone shares an evaluation or comment with you.
If you have time beforehand, then I suggest you decide on purpose how you want to feel before you go into the situation. If you decide you want to be calm and open-minded then you could choose thoughts like “A yearly review is not a reflection of my worth as a CPA” or “I always try to do my best no matter what”.
If you already have your review or know what someone has said, it’s important that afterwards you also ask yourself whether this is feedback or criticism. Even though the distinction between the two is the intention of the other person and you never really know for sure what their intention is, you usually have a pretty good idea. Here is the difference:
- Was the person trying to pass along some information that they believe is helpful? Then it was probably feedback.
- Were they feeling negative emotions and trying to make them themselves feel better? Then it was probably criticism.
- Feedback (from your mother-in-law) – “When my children were picky eaters I found it helpful to have them in the kitchen helping me make the food so they were part of the process”
- Criticism – “It’s very frustrating to watch your children because they are the pickiest eaters I’ve ever seen; you really need to get that under control better”
Knowing that a person may be complaining because they are frustrated and trying to make themselves feel better can really help to diffuse the situation. It can also be helpful to notice when exaggerations or over-generalizations are made because any negativity on the part of the giver is about them, not you.
If you have a tendency to assume the worst in someone, then it can also be beneficial to have someone outside the situation who can help you understand whether you are getting feedback or criticism. Remember, your brain is biased towards what you already believe about yourself and others.
The expression “Take what you like and leave the rest” can be helpful when you tend to be too hard on yourself but it’s also important to not miss the opportunity that feedback, and sometimes even criticism, may provide. It may be worth finding a “nugget” of truth if it could be beneficial personally or professionally, as long as it moves you forward instead of keeping you stuck or making you feel worse.
You can apply this to any area of your life whether your mother-in-law likes to compare how she raised her children, you are dreading the upcoming parent-teacher conference or someone flips you off on the highway. It’s all so much easier when you learn to distinguish between a fact or an opinion and between feedback or criticism.
When you are on the giving end
As a CPA and a mom, you’re probably on the giving end of feedback and criticism more times than you realize. Whether it’s needing to discuss financial issues with clients, managing other employees job performance or raising your children to be capable and kind, you cannot avoid giving your perspective on things.
Even though you are the one on the giving end, the delineation between feedback and criticism still applies. It’s important that you first get honest about your intentions before sharing something you may believe would be helpful to someone else.
It’s also crucial to know that you cannot control what someone else thinks or feels about the information you share but you are in control of the results you create for YOU. By asking “What result do I want FOR ME at the end of this meeting/situation?” you can start creating that result for yourself.
For example, the result you want to create from a yearly review with a staff member shouldn’t be that they perform better because that is totally out of your control. The result CAN be that you clearly and calmly convey your concerns, or that you create a performance plan with them, or that you know that you showed up for you and for them with integrity.
In order to achieve the result you’ve chosen for you, you will then need to ask:
- What actions would I need to take to get that result?
- How would I need to feel to take those actions?
- What thought could I choose to think that would create that feeling?
Remember the difference between feedback and criticism is the intention behind it so getting clear about how you feel before you take any action will make all the difference. You need to be clear about how you are feeling before you share your pearls of wisdom with another person.
From the place of awareness and honesty about your intention behind what you are going to say or do beforehand, you can express yourself clearly and compassionately. How the other person receives what you are sharing is none of your business; you are only responsible for the honesty of your intention.
Finding a few positive things to “sandwich” around something negative can be helpful when anticipating resistance from someone. But remember, you are not in control of how someone thinks and feels, only how you think and feel before and after you take an action like sharing an evaluation or feedback.
No matter what the area of your life is, learning the subtle art of giving and receiving feedback and criticism is simpler when you know how to manage your mind.
- Even if you consider yourself someone with a “thick skin”, the subtle art of giving and receiving criticism is still a skill that’s worth learning.
- Whether you are on the receiving or giving end, determining whether it’s criticism or feedback will always be based on the intention behind it.
- When it comes to deciphering between a fact or an opinion and feedback or criticism, your brain will involuntarily be swayed by what’s already familiar, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
- It’s important that you first get honest about your intentions before sharing something you may believe would be helpful to someone else.
- You are not in control of how someone thinks and feels, only how you think and feel before and after you take an action, like sharing an evaluation or feedback.
If you’d like some help with the subtle art of giving and receiving criticism, please feel free to schedule a free mini session or email me at email@example.com and we can get to work together.