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Receiving criticism with confidence.


Receiving criticism with confidence

Allow yourself to learn from criticism directed at you. Even if it is invalid, respond diplomatically. Conclusion of a series on personal and personnel judgments in the lab.

Mark Twain said, "I like criticism, but it must be my way." Most laboratorians take Twain a step further: They do not like criticism, and they never divulge what their way is.

For the vast majority of people, criticism has a negative connotation. Consequently, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you hate criticism and avoid it even when constructive, you make avoidable mistakes and cause even more disapproval. If you change your mind-set about criticism, however, and view it as either neutral or positive, it will have a neutral--or even positive--result for you.

To help you change your mental set, let's define criticism as "somebody's opinion of a situation, action, or person that he or she wants to share with you." This is a neutral definition that doesn't imply the opinion is correct, is the only one, or must be acted upon. If you can accept this definition, you are half way to changing your view of criticism. This will lead you to be more effective in handling it.

The next step is to recognize the many different ways of interpreting judgments. If you seek more than one interpretation of what someone said, you will have more options for reacting to it. Choose the interpretation to which you will respond. Some will build your confidence, others may put you on a growth track, and still others may key you into an insight about the politics of the organization--who is allied with whom. Using this multiple interpretation approach, you may eventually be able to say, as actress Helen Hayes did, "I like criticism. It's the only way to grow."

* Criticism analysis guidelines. Here are several different ways to evaluate criticism:

* Analyze source. Do you respect the critic? Is your critic credible? What might be the motivation? Is the commentator qualified to judge your behavior? People from other departments who judge the laboratory and its staff may not be credible. If they lack a lab background or are not respected, don't waste energy arguing with them. Thank them for their views and just let it go.

Assess the emotional state of your critic. Is the emotion being expressed appropriate to the situation? Or is it just someone venting anger for something that happened earlier in the day? A classic example of this is the surgeon who follows up a bad time in the operating room by attacking the laboratory technologist about something unrelated. If the emotions are not related to the nominal problem, do not take the criticism as a serious blow to your ego or competence. Often, the exploder merely needs to let off steam and finds the laboratory a convenient outlet.

One creative lab professional, faced repeatedly with an explosive surgeon, realized that he looked like a child having a temper tantrum. She asked, in a very nurturing tone of voice, "Doctor, were they mean to you in the operating room today?" He stopped immediately and said in an almost childlike tone, "Well, yes. How did you know?" At that point, the technologist replied, "Have a piece of candy and tell me about it." They ended their conversation feeling positive instead of angry or upset.

* Analyze situation. How important is the situation being criticized in the overall scheme of your life? Does the questioned behavior truly make a difference? Will you even remember, in a month or two, what the fuss was about? Many of the critiques we receive come from a friend or colleague as throw-away remarks having little significance to us as individuals or professionals. Do not invest your energy replying to a comment that is not important to either your work situation or personal relationships.

* Heard this before? Count the number of times you have heard similar criticism. Have people both on and off the job been suggesting that the same change is needed? For example, if several people have told you to be more tactful and diplomatic, take them seriously and develop a plan for improvement.

* What's the payoff? Analyze what your reward might be for making the desired change. It's always an effort to develop a new behavior or rid oneself of an old one. We have a limited amount of energy to use at work; invest yours where you envision a positive payoff for you, your career, and/or the laboratory. If you see no clear reward, obtain additional information before deciding to change. Ask your critic, "How would this change benefit the laboratory or help me to become more productive?" If altering your behavior would truly make a difference to the lab, your productivity, or your career progress, accept the criticism and make the change.

* How to accept criticism. First, evaluate the critique with your mind, not your emotions. An emotional response to criticism does not make for change, positive relationships, or good feeling. Your second goal is to use criticism to build your self-esteem. Whether the comment is true, untrue, or ambiguous, you can still use it to build pride and confidence. You will achieve this by choosing a response that is appropriate and positive for you. Your positive feelings come from making a good choice and being in control of your reaction.

The first step in evaluating criticism with your mind is to decide whether the report is valid, invalid, or unclear. To accomplish this, you will have to hear your critic out without interruption. Listen to the entire statement while analyzing whether what is being said about you is true or not. Taking notes is useful at this point. It will help you to stay analytic and unemotional, while showing your critic that you are listening and taking the situation seriously.

If you decide the criticism is valid, you have two choices: to change or not to change. Think of opinions you have heard recently. Were they valid? Keeping that in mind, let's look at examples of how to handle valid, invalid, and ambiguous criticism.

* When criticism is valid. This morning your spouse told you, in a disapproving tone of voice, "You left the bedroom light on!" An emotional reaction might be to say, "Well, why didn't you turn it off?" or "Who cares?" or even "No, I didn't--you did." If you are not a "morning person" and operate in a fog early in the day, you might very well be guilty as charged. In this instance, if you are to react with your mind and not your emotions, you will simply agree with your critic by saying "True," "Right," or "Yes, I did." This response takes very little energy and doesn't lead to bad feelings. You can also share what action you will take: for example, "Right, I'll turn it off in a few minutes," or "Yes, I'm going back in there," or even "Right you are. I'd appreciate it if you'd turn it off." An approach that I use with my spouse, who is a morning type, is to say "Right, and you are so alert to have noticed that!" He feels he has received a compliment, and we both end up smiling instead of arguing.

The most effective strategy for handling valid criticism is to agree with it. Your agreement will surprise and defuse faultfinders who are looking for an argument or who hope to elevate themselves by putting you down. If so, it may be wise to walk away from them immediately after agreeing, further limiting their opportunity to censure you.

* Choosing to change. If your critic mentions a weakness that you are currently working to overcome, your strategy will be to agree and share your self-improvement plan. For example, if he or she suggests that you need to be more tactful and diplomatic, you might reply, "You're right. That is my area for improvement for the next six months. So far, I've read one book on communication skills and signed up for a workshop. Do you have any other ideas how I might go about improving?" In this example, you have built self-esteem by recognizing the weakness, developing and announcing a plan for improvement, and leaving yourself open to further suggestions. If it was your supervisor who criticized you, you showed that you recognize the problem and are doing something about it.

What if you see that the criticism is valid but have no idea how to become more tactful? In this case, agree with it and ask for help. Say, "You're right; I do seem to have foot-in-mouth disease. Could you help me overcome the problem? I don't know how to approach it." Using this tactic will usually elicit good suggestions. If, however, your critic says, "I don't know. You just need to be more tactful," then your next approach is to ask whether you might go to the training or staff development department for help. You might ask permission to seek the help of someone in the organization who is known for diplomacy.

Asking for help has several advantages. Being open to suggestion helps a critic who, after all, is trying to help you. You have also coopted your judge into being a member of your self-improvement team.

Requesting assistance also works when confronting a faultfinder who is trying to be destructive. In this case, the implied message in your asking for help is to say, "Put up or shut up." But you have said it tactfully for perhaps the first time in your life!

* Choosing not to change. At times, criticism is valid, but you decide not to change. In these cases, agree with it and explain why you plan to keep things as they are. You might say, "You're right, but that is not one of my priorities at present," or "That is something I usually delegate to others."

Some critics want us to change so drastically as to nearly require a personality transplant. For instance, if you are not detail oriented, you probably never will be. Once so criticized, agree but show how the very trait portrayed as a negative has often been a positive for you. Give examples of times when your vision of "the big picture" has benefited the lab.

If your boss insists that you become detail oriented to keep your job, you have some serious thinking to do. Is it possible, short of a personality makeover, to become the way he or she wishes you to be? Do you want to develop this way of thinking? How much time and energy would it require? Would you ever be really good at staying on top of details? If you can't sell your big-picture thinking pattern to your boss as an asset, warm up the resume and look for a new job.

* Staying neutral. When invalid criticism comes from someone who has no power over you, a neutral position is appropriate. Thank the person for telling you about it, then quickly walk away. If you stay, you will be hit with a second comment to draw you into the game of attack-and-defend, which is counter-productive for both of you. You might reply, "Thanks for telling me that," or "Thank you. It's interesting for me to know how you see me." Make either of these replies with a positive or neutral facial expression and tone of voice. Sarcasm is out of place and would only encourage an escalation of the fray.

* Attacking your strength. The most shocking and painful kind of criticism involves an attack on a trait or behavior that you consider one of your strengths. The tendency is to respond, in honesty (and varying tones of voice), "No one has ever said that to me before." This tactic won't work. It implies that your critic is wrong and invites an argument. Instead, when stunned by such criticism, ask for evidence.

If being detail oriented is a strength that has always served you well, request evidence showing why it is being seen as negative. This is especially true if your supervisor is making the statement. You might ask, "Exactly when did I appear too detail oriented? What negative result did you notice because of it?" Armed with this information, you can decide whether the situation happened only once or you are being asked to alter your personality.

While there's nothing unusual about having to sell your strengths to the boss, an ability to see the forest for the trees won't help in a desert. The boss may hire someone with a specific strength to fill a void in the work group, then become uncomfortable when it's used later on. A supervisor who hires a nitpicker to help with quality control may come to dislike that particular characteristic. The ability to sell yourself, taking an active role in spelling out positive results of certain traits, is a true mark of a professional.

When you receive criticism that is patently incorrect, use a variation of the tactic discussed above. Ask for evidence; then deal with the specifics. In this situation, however, your critic may be unwilling or unable to supply specific behavioral or situational evidence of the criticism offered. In such cases, document your own behavior to prove that you are not as accused. Tell your critic that you will keep records of the behavior in question because you want to be seen as an effective member of the team. This is another instance in which it is essential to use a positive or neutral tone of voice and facial expression.

* Ambiguity. Unclear criticism comes in many forms. Sometimes it's criticism of a personality trait. At other times it may be so complex and confusing that you aren't sure what the problem is or what you should do about it. In either situation, you need a behavioral definition of the problem. Behavior is observable and has a specific beginning and end. With this information you can determine whether the criticism is valid or invalid and then decide whether to change or not.

Obtain a behavioral definition by asking a series of questions. You might say, "I don't think I'm on your wavelength. I need more information. Could you tell me exactly when I seemed to be uncooperative? What would you have liked me to do or say differently? What could I have done to come across better? How can I go about changing my behavior?"

* React with your mind. When on the receiving end of criticism, react with your mind, not your emotions. Multiply options by interpreting the critique in more ways than one. If it seems valid and in an area that you wish to change, discuss your improvement plan or ask your critic for assistance. If the criticism is valid and you choose not to change, agree with the criticism and explain why you do not plan to change.

When you are on the receiving end of wrongful criticism, document how the behavior in question is actually an asset. When the critique is obviously incorrect or ambiguous, ask for evidence of the behavior, including what should be done differently. Once you have the behavioral definition, decide whether the criticism is valid or not and proceed accordingly.

In receiving criticism, you have the right to decide whether or not to change. You are in charge of you. Enjoy the responsibility, making choices and changing your bahavior in ways that are positive for both yourself and the laboratory.

Shirley Harmon, Ph.D. The author, founder and CEO of Communication Management Associates, Orinda, Calif., has given many seminars and workshops on criticism.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Handling Criticism, part 2
Author:Harmon, Shirley
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Previous Article:Hazardous material officer: opportunity for laboratorians.
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