We all hate when someone expresses their displeasure with our appearance, behavior, or something we’ve produced. We usually jump to our defense. But learning to use criticism to our benefit is one of the most important things we can learn in life.
It’s hard to hear that our story, picture, new jacket, or haircut is not quite right, according to someone else. But it’s always useful.
Always? Even if the person is trying to hurt you or take you down a peg?
Yes. Here’s why: if the information is on target, you have a view of how to improve yourself. And if the information is merely malicious, you have a more accurate view of your critic. But criticism is usually based on truth.
My mother always made sure that her 4 daughters were beautifully dressed. I remember being annoyed when, after I viewed myself in the mirror and admired my shoes, tights, dress, and coat, my mother would stop me at the door and say, “You can’t go out like that.”
“Why not?” I asked, baffled.
It was either, “Your hem is ripped in the back.” Or “A button is missing from your coat.” Or “There’s a small stain on your skirt.”
She was so picky! I thought. “But that’s just one little thing,” I’d insist. “Every other part of me looks perfect. No one will notice.”
“Everyone will notice,” she said. “It will spoil the whole look.”
She was right, of course, but I didn’t realize that until I was older and recognized that our eye is always drawn to the negative detail. Human beings have evolved to notice what is out of place. Although I felt unfairly criticized at these times, my mother was usually so full of praise and admiration for me that I trusted her and followed her instruction. I was glad for the lesson later on.
What about hurtful criticism?
I was a shy, sensitive girl, and in 4th grade I had the misfortune to have a teacher who didn’t like quiet students. Whenever she ridiculed me for being silent, I burst into tears and ran to the coatroom to hide my shame. “There she goes again, crying,” the teacher would sneer.
One day, Mrs. D. arranged everyone into a circle and told us to share our opinion of our classmates. We were all scared so we were pretty careful not to be harsh.
When it was my turn, no one said anything for a long time. Finally, one boy ventured, “Candy is very nice, but she cries too much.”
I burst into tears and ran to the back of the room.
I knew he wasn’t being mean. He was a kind-hearted boy who liked me. But I still felt humiliated. Luckily, because of a loving family and quite a few friends, I had enough confidence to realize 2 things. One, I had an awful teacher. And two, I needed to learn to control my crying. I did.
For most of my young life, I was terrified of public speaking but was drawn to it. When I began conducting training seminars on my job I slowly overcame my nervousness. My self-confidence grew because people seemed to genuinely like my talks.
One particular time, at the beginning of my public speaking experience, several people came up to ask questions and personally thank me for my lecture.
A man pushed through the crowd that was waiting to speak to me at the lectern. He waved a large piece of paper in my face that looked like this:
“52 times,” he grunted, his finger jabbing at the paper.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“52 times!” he insisted. “You said, ‘you know’ 52 times!” Then he stalked away.
My mouth dropped open and my face turned red. Other people who saw and heard it said, “What a jerk. Ignore him.”
But when I thought about it later, I knew it had to be true. He couldn’t have made it up. It was clear I had a verbal tic I’d known nothing about. My saying, “you know” 52 times had driven him to such distraction that he couldn’t concentrate on anything else I’d said.
Although I was embarrassed, I became eternally grateful for this useful bit of information the stranger gave to me. I began to hear the offending phrase pop out of my mouth everywhere. It was the first step in catching myself and eradicating it. I’m a better speaker now because of his criticism.
Next time I’ll talk about the harshest critic in all our lives. Ourselves.
What was your most useful criticism?