Like so many children, I endured a wave of maternal criticism when I was younger. Sometimes it was the color of my hair, sometimes the length of it, at times my behavior and at others something else. Of course, it was always well-meant and – at least in her mind – a loving encouragement for me to be the best version of me that I could be.
Criticism is a funny thing. It happens all the time only that – more often than not – we refer to it as feedback, with the key distinction of feedback generally being construed as something positive and criticism as something negative; unless – of course – it is constructive criticism.
Before I proceed, let me be clear though: I am talking here about interactions between two or more people who know each other and not a public slandering defended by the throwaway line of “everyone is entitled to their opinion” that we are – unfortunately – witnessing more and more on social media accounts.
In any case, the basis for all three of them – feedback, criticism and constructive criticism – remains the same: there is a certain subjective or objective standard that was not fulfilled. Similarly, all three – to some degree – share the common goal of encouraging the other person to succeed: to be a better person, employee, lover, presenter, colleague, son, daughter… you name it!
Feedback that arises from performance or behaviors benchmarked against organisational objectives, key performance indicators, societal norms or other preset hurdles aside, let’s have a brief look at what the non-fulfillment of a set of certain – often internal – criteria actually means. It’s really quite simple.
To link it back to the example of my mother, it just meant that in her mind her perfect daughter would have long, blonde hair and be a bit more politely expressed: criteria I did not exactly fulfill and thus I was scolded for. Did that make me an ugly or a bad person? I would like to think not – simply because other people had different standards. Those people were perfectly fine with the length and color of my hair and also accepted the occasional swear word flying out of my mouth; yet, they did not necessarily enjoy the shape of my glasses or the number of tattoos on my body and, accordingly, flagged those to me. I guess there is a reason for the saying: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure – and vice versa.
This seems to be a trivial example, yet we can draw some key lessons for both, feedback givers and feedback receivers.
As a feedback giver, it makes sense to pause from time to time to reflect upon the kind of feedback that you are providing because it helps you to learn about yourself and how you see the world. For example, in my recent role of assisting MBA graduates to prepare for interviews, in addition to generalist, common-sense (read: objective) criteria, I frequently commented on structure, strategy and the use of clean language, simply because all three of them are important to me when communicating career aspirations and the suitability for a particular role. So from that I know that in order for me to be satisfied in any semi- or formal communication context, structure, strategy and clean language are essential. That is handy knowledge for me to have and share in case I manage staff or work as part of a team.
This also means that when you are on the receiving end of feedback, it is worthwhile to remember that the person sharing the feedback with you gives you a lot of information about how they see the world and about what is important to them and that – dependent on whether they praise or scold you – you managed to live up to this view of the world, or not.
With this in mind, you – secondly – have a choice: you can accept the person’s view of the world and change accordingly (or keep up the positive behaviors and aspects they praised) or you can choose not to. In fact, you could even give them feedback on the way they see the world: if someone does not like your style of presenting, should you change your style or should they change their preference? Or should it be a combination of both? The answer to that question will depend on your objectives and relationship with that person.
The point is that, once you see feedback for what it is, namely a simple indication of someone’s preferences, it is much easier to listen to it with an open mind, to gracefully thank the other person for sharing their opinion and to subsequently evaluate the information and decide whether or not it is in your best interest to take it on board. Sometimes it is and sometimes it is not and at other times it might be useful in certain situations but not others.
Personally, I always like to listen to everyone and then decide what works for me. I also might evaluate the source and context of the feedback: Is this information valid only in this context or across contexts? Is this person an expert in the field? Do I value their opinion? Would a lot of people see this similarly? Is this someone who genuinely wants to see me succeed? This way I – and also you – can avoid falling into the trap of: try to please everyone and you please no one – you included.
So the next time, you are giving or receiving feedback/criticism/constructive criticism, ask yourself: whose criteria and view of the world are more important and valuable in this situation and in achieving your goals moving forward? Just something to think about. Damn!