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51. Handling Criticism

You have to have a lot of confidence to be able to accept criticism gracefully and productively. It's hard to know what is more difficult, dealing with criticism that is true, or criticism that is not, but either way it's important to separate the criticism from your emotional reaction to it. This week's tip is about those horrible experiences when you find yourself unexpectedly criticised or embarrassed. Time to get one out of the deep recesses of your mind, put it on the table and shine a bit of light on it. Once there were three blind men who were taken to meet an elephant. None of the men had ever experienced an elephant before. The keeper led the first man to the elephant and the man put out his hand and touched a leg. He felt the skin, rough under his hands. He put his arms around the leg, hugging it against his chest. He reached down and felt the toes where they met the earth. 'It's a tree!', he announced. The second man approached the elephant and, as he did so, the beast turned its huge head and extended its trunk towards him. The man took hold of the trunk and ran his hands up and down its undulating form. The elephant felt the man's face with its soft proboscis and then wrapped its trunk around him. 'It's a snake!' the man shouted. The third man stepped forward but by this time the elephant keeper had appeared with some hay. The elephant turned towards the keeper, waving its tail in the face of the third blind man. The man caught the tail as it swished through the air. He felt the long muscular cord of it, and the coarse hair that straggled from the end of it. 'It's a rope!' he exclaimed. I told this story to a group of NHS managers who had just been through the process of 360 degree feedback. This is done by sending a questionnaire to a dozen or so colleagues, who then fill in their opinions of you, anonymously. The managers were shell-shocked. Two of them were in tears. One of them, an energetic, bright young woman, had had a great deal of positive feedback from her colleagues - that she was friendly, efficient, competent, flexible.... and so on. But one person had commented that she was scruffy and needed to smarten up. She was mortified. She had started to examine her clothes, ask other people, look in the mirror. She lost all confidence in her appearance. What she couldn't see was that one person had taken one small aspect of her and, based on their individual perspective, used it to make a general criticism about her. I had a similarly unpleasant experience many years ago. I was at an academic meeting where a researcher was presenting results of a study into the effects of the nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They had followed up the whole population for forty years and they had discovered, that while the people who were alive at the time had suffered many injuries, there was no increase in the rate of cancer or deformity in either themselves or their progeny. I was amazed, I had always thought that survivors of these events were doomed to all kinds of mutations. So I did an unwise thing, I spoke. It was unwise to speak because this particular academic meeting was always full of enormous, but fragile, egos that sought to prop themselves up by belittling others. It was a meeting at which to keep one's head down, definitely. But I was so astonished that before I knew it I had said, 'So, there's nothing to worry about then?' The lecturer looked at me as though I had just denied the holocaust and said, in the most scathing tones, 'Well, only a few million people died.' There was a horrible silence. I think I may have spluttered something in my defence, but it was too late. I was the worst person on the planet and now everyone knew. It says something that this happened twenty years ago and yet I can remember, not only exactly what happened, but every nuance of my shame. And that shame arose every time I thought of that day until about a year when I asked myself a few pertinent questions: 1. What meaning did I attach to that event? 2. What did I think that person had thought of me? 3. What did I conclude about myself? The first thing I realised was that I thought the man had seen in me someone who was thoughtless, callous and stupid. The second thing I realised was that I had somehow made the leap to thinking that I therefore was thoughtless, callous and stupid - my inner critic had leapt onto the band wagon and joined in with gusto. The third thing I realised was, that although I may sometimes speak before I've thought something through thoroughly, I am not known for being callous or stupid. In that instant the shame that I had felt lifted and has never returned. I can think of that episode now and absolutely nothing horrible happens internally at all! What I can see now is that my intense focus on one aspect of what the man was saying had led him to believe that I had missed the point. He had then gone on to make a judgement about me, almost certainly based on his own emotional reactions, though nothing like as vociferous as the one I had made myself. Similarly, the NHS manager had decided that the person who had criticised her sartorial standards was right, and that had caused a sudden loss of confidence, not only in her appearance, but in her own judgement. She had thought she dressed smartly and now she had discovered she was wrong - that left her feeling very confused and vulnerable. On reflection she realised that different people have different ideas about what is smart, that no-one else had made this comment, that she might not be the sharpest dresser in the place but that she dressed well enough for the level of formality in that organisation. She also decided to make a bit more effort on the days she was attending corporate meetings. 'Criticism is something we can avoid easily - by saying nothing, doing nothing and being nothing.' Aristotle Try this: 1. Think of an time when you were felt awful because of an overt or implied criticism. 2. Ask yourself the three questions, above. 3. What would a dispassionate observer have made of this event? 4. What is a more balanced way of seeing this event now? Have a shame-free week!