“It is much easier to be critical than to be correct.”
~ Benjamin Disraeli
Recently, I came across this interesting blog entry by Barbara Sher, in which she begins the process of “dissecting critics”; that is, figuring out why it is that some people – upon hearing about a great idea you’ve had, or exciting project you’ve started – will stick a pin in your enthusiasm almost as soon as look at you.
She argues that critics can be good (the kind that impart opinions and ideas that are genuinely useful and that can help you succeed) or bad (the kind that attack your idea out of mischief, or misinformation, because their egos are threatened by your potential success).
Interesting stuff, which set me to considering the role of critics in our lives, and how to deal with them.
I actually think that critics can fall into three broad categories: ‘good’, ‘bad’, and ‘well-meaning but misguided’. Let’s take a look at each:
“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.”
~Frank A. Clark
A good critic won’t treat you with kid gloves. They’re not people who’ll just nod and smile at everything you tell them, or who’ll assure you that everything you do is going to turn to gold. A good critic can be tough, and direct. People in this category genuinely want you to succeed, but if they can see a better way for you to achieve what you’re trying to achieve, they’ll tell you about it. If they’re an expert in the field that you are working or playing in, so much the better; the input of an expert can be astoundingly valuable, especially when you’re still a beginner.
They’ll help you understand the whys and wherefores of any mistakes you’ve made – or are about to make – and they’ll furnish you with fresh ideas and encouragement.
Of course, very good critics will do all that in ways that are respectful of your feelings. These are the critics you’ll want to cultivate in your life. They are the mentors who will generously share their hard-won knowledge to aid your success, and who will celebrate with you when you make progress.
“Any fool can criticise, condemn and complain, and most fools do.”
~ Dale Carnegie
Bad critics range from the disinterested (those who are so self-centered they’ll brush your ideas off without really noticing if they’re any good or not, because they’re too busy focusing on themselves), to the destructive (those who don’t give a fig whether your endeavour is good or bad, but who want to stop you in your tracks nonetheless, because your success makes them feel diminished). Both are tricky to deal with, but deal with them you must.
In the case of the former, when it comes to seeking encouragement, they are best avoided. Don’t share with them anything you aren’t prepared to see dismissed out of hand. They may not be intentionally dismissive – and they may have many other good qualities and may even make good friends in some respects – but their narcissism means that they see the world as revolving around them, and unless your current project is part of their orbit, it hasn’t got a chance of registering with them.
The latter, too, are best avoided if possible; but of course, it isn’t always possible to get away from such unpleasant people. If you do come across someone who seems to be going all out to shoot you down in flames – just for the sake of it and without any real regard for the content of what you’re sharing with them – you need to activate the Bad Critic Survival Plan, which has four steps:
Step 1: Recognise that their negativity has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with them. For some reason, you bother them, and they themselves may not even understand why. Something about your idea, or perhaps about your enthusiasm, has made them uncomfortable, because it has threatened their sense of themselves. They believe that you getting a big slice of the pie leaves less for them, and they’re determined to slap it right out of your hand.
Step 2: Don’t be defensive. Defensiveness on your part gives the bad critic exactly what they want. If you show that you’re getting riled – even if you come back with a very logical, rational, and convincing defence – it’s one-up to them, because they know they’ve made target. They’re not going to be convinced by logic anyway – remember, they may not even be opposed to the content of what they’re criticising – and if they see that they’ve got to you, it’s a signal for them to move in for the kill.
Step 3: Invite them to explain. What? Invite more criticism? Yes. As hard as it might be to do, asking a bad critic to share more information with you – about what they’ve observed, and about what they’d suggest you do differently – can be helpful in at least three ways:
• Firstly, you may just learn something very useful from them. There could be something in what they say that you can use, if you get past your annoyance at them saying it. This also helps if you’ve misidentified them and they are in fact a good critic, but just appear bad because your feelings are hurt.
• Secondly, it can disarm them. If they’re simply trying to bring you down and instead of appearing downcast you appear genuinely interested, it’s one-up to you.
• Finally, it can wrong-foot them. If their criticism is built on shaky foundations, your questioning will start to push at the structure of their argument, and they won’t like it. The chances are, they’ll retreat, or will become so overtly critical in retaliation that they’ll start to look vaguely ridiculous – and they’ll know it.
Step 4: Walk away. If you’ve enacted Step 3 as effectively as possible, there’s a good chance that they’ll walk away from you. You’ll have shown them that their barbed words can’t hurt you, and since they will no longer be able to scent blood, they’ll move on; they may even actively avoid you if they think you’re going to start harassing them to share their criticism in great detail so that you can use the information to improve your chances! But even if that doesn’t happen, you can move yourself off their territory, and thus protect yourself from further harm.
One last thing to remember about bad critics: they are rarely experts. It just isn’t sensible to ask your curmudgeonly Auntie Mabel (the one who disapproves of everything you do) if she thinks it’s a good idea for you to quit your job in the city in order to retrain as a marine biologist. She may have a predictable opinion – “you’re too old, it’s too hard, you’ll never make a living” – but it’s probably not based on a realistic appraisal of the facts. How would she know? If you want to ask anyone, find and ask a marine biologist.
Critics Who Are Well-Meaning But Misguided
“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.”
~ Abraham Lincoln
What characterises a critic who is well-meaning but misguided? These are the people who may appear to be a bad critic – since their criticism is often based on discouragement – but who in fact actually have your best interests at heart (they think). When they see you getting really high with an idea, and find themselves doubting the possibility of your turning that idea into reality, they’ll try to pull you back down to earth; sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, but always with the motivation of keeping you “safe”.
The problem is, it doesn’t work. The reason they see your idea as impossible is that they’re struggling to conceive of how they would turn it into reality if they were in your place. They may even be thinking back to a time when they tried something similar, and failed, perhaps badly. It’s natural then that they want to stop you from making the same mistake, but in trying to stop you in your tracks, they’re neglecting to take full account of your own unique abilities. In fact, critics in this category are often people who struggle to see things from another’s point of view.
That can leave you feeling doubly deflated. They’ve pierced the bubble of your bright idea, and they’ve signalled to you that they don’t believe you’re fully capable. Ouch!
What makes dealing with this category of critic particularly troublesome is that they are often people who are very important in your life: parents, best friends, or significant others. You can usually tell a critic falls into this category when you feel very criticised by them, but are also 100% confident that they really do love and care for you. That’s something you definitely won’t be experiencing with a genuinely ‘bad’ critic.
Unfortunately, just because someone loves you, doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of trampling right across your dreams whilst believing they’re doing you a favour. Figuring out a response to this type of critic can be problematic, because as well as wanting to protect yourself from their criticism, you’ll almost certainly also want to spare their feelings. Figuring out a strategy that works is important, though; in a worst-case scenario, you may find yourself resenting them, perhaps even withdrawing from them.
If you think someone is coming from the “well-meaning but misguided” place, there are two broad ways of dealing with them:
1) Don’t tell them your idea until it’s at least part-way off the ground, and your confidence in it is pretty much unshakeable. The first stage of action – the bright idea, full of excitement, but with little in the way of practicality – is particularly vulnerable to critics of any stripe;
2) At the same time as sharing news of your exciting new endeavour, make sure you’re communicating something that makes them feel safe on your behalf. This will help to defuse their urge to criticise. For example: “Hi Uncle Joe, I just lost my job so I’ve decided to train to be an astronaut. The great news is, I’ve saved so much money over the past few years, I could comfortably survive without work until at least 2026! What’s for dinner?”
In short, don’t put your dream on the line to critics in this category until you know that you or they can cope with whatever comes up as a result.
Of course, by far the most painful thing about this type of critic is that – because of who they are in our lives – they are the very people we want to be able to turn to for encouragement. It’s important to recognise that their criticism is borne out of love and genuine concern; but we’re walking into trouble if we actively seek unconditional encouragement from someone who just isn’t in a position to give it.
Of course your parents or partner are going to be scared stiff if they think you’re about to do the equivalent of jumping out of a plane without a parachute! That’s their job. When you share a dream with someone that close to you – someone who may not be as confident about your chances of success as you are, or as aware of the fact that you’ll learn valuable lessons even if you do fail – you need to bear in mind that they need as much safety and support as you do (possibly more) and you have some responsibility to give it to them.
Here’s where we develop great humility, whether we want to or not!
To cultivate more good critics in your life:
• Make a list of the people in your life who’ve criticised you in ways that have left you feeling expanded, rather than diminished. Consider approaching them and specifically inviting constructive criticism from them whenever you’re ready for it.
• Consider building up your own dream team, and filling it with people who have good ideas and the ability to share them constructively, and also who’ll helpfully challenge you when you need it.
• Consider hiring a mentor or a coach professionally or personally. Any good mentor or coach will be able to offer constructive criticism in ways that help to move you forward without making you feel deflated or stupid.
“I have no right, by anything I do or say, to demean a human being in his own eyes. What matters is not what I think of him; it is what he thinks of himself.”
~Antoine de Saint-Exupery
© Brian Cormack Carr, 2011