When I moved to the West Coast from Boston, I went through an awkward adjustment period.
Seattleites are notoriously polite. They like to discuss the weather at length. Complete strangers greet one another on the sidewalk for no good reason. You can sit at a four-way stop sign for 20 minutes debating who goes next – “Go ahead.” “No, you go – I insist!”
Where I come from, time is money, small talk is pointless, and at a four-way stop, the person with the most chutzpah goes first. My Yankee upbringing has rendered me blunt, assertive, and six feet tall. In other words, I scare people.
Soon after I arrived in Seattle, I was working at an animal shelter as an adoption counselor. I loved my job. I was passionate and dedicated, and I enjoyed working with both people and animals. So I was surprised when Hillary, the shelter manager, called me to discuss a complaint.
I had “counseled” a woman who was considering declawing her cat by asking her, “When your three-year-old son paints on the wall do you chop off his hands? How about you try giving him some paper first?”
Shockingly, the woman was taken aback. I can’t imagine why.
“I understand you’re passionate about this,” my manager said. “I think we may just need to soften up your delivery a little. You can be a bit… East Coast. We’re not used to that out here.”
I hung up the phone feeling that red hot sting of criticism. It washed over me like a prickly wave. My knee-jerk reaction was defensiveness. In the past I would have written off this woman as a monster and gotten all fisticuffs. “You want East Coast? I’ll show you East Coast…” and so on.
There were a million reasons why I felt justified in communicating the way I had.
Except none of them mattered.
What mattered was that a woman came to the shelter to get a new companion and instead she got some punk reading her the riot act. I hated to admit it, but Hillary was right – I needed to make a change.
Asking the Right Questions
I decided to work through the whole emotional mess in my journal and see what I could learn from the experience. The process was painful and totally empowering. Here’s how it went down.
Below are the journaling prompts I used to transform the criticism into actionable feedback that increased my effectiveness. I’ve included my actual journal entries as an example on how to apply the principles.
I use these steps all the time now without thinking about it. The process has become engrained. But in the beginning, you might find it helpful to write out the actual prompts in your journal and then answer them as you go.
So you’ve received some lousy criticism. Here’s what you do with it:
1. Thank the Person for the Feedback
Let’s get the hardest part out of the way first. You may need to recalibrate your thinking to push through this difficult task, but it’s essential that you do. Expressing gratitude puts you into a constructive frame of mind for working with the criticism. It gets you out of defensive victim mode.
You don’t have to make any judgment on the criticism yet – whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s accurate or not, whether the person’s delivery sucked. Don’t defend yourself, apologize, or make any excuses. Just say, “Thank you for the feedback.” That’s the only response you need to provide right now.
Criticism helps you fine tune your efforts so you can accomplish your goals. Feedback helps you target your efforts effectively so you get better at what you do. That’s why you need to see the feedback as a gift and say thank you.
2. Remove Yourself from the Situation to Process
You may have different requirements in this department, but I’ve found retreat the safest bet for me when I’ve received heavy duty criticism. If I’m not allowed to flee, I go into fight mode, which is awful. Despite my East Coast demeanor, I’m a lover, not a fighter.
So I go somewhere alone to lick my wounds in private. Sometimes it’s a bathroom, if that’s the only spot I can find in the moment.
3. Sit with the Criticism
Before reacting in any way, just receive the feedback. Hear it. Sit with it. Observe your body’s physical reactions to the adrenaline. Your heart pounds, you feel red in the face. You’ll want to argue, reject the feedback, defend yourself. Don’t. Just let the biological turmoil run its course.
This Zen principle changed my life: You can’t choose your reaction, but you can choose your response. I can’t control my body’s adrenaline fueled, fight-or-flight reaction to criticism. But I can choose how I respond to that criticism – which actions I take, which words I use.
Let yourself feel the sting, let it wash over you. Don’t push it away, don’t ignore it or rebuke it. Just sit with it.
As my friend Ken always told me, “Nobody ever died of feelings.” Though there have been times I was sure I’d be the first.
4. Assess the Criticism
What just happened?
Write about what just happened in detail, as objectively as possible. Include the situation surrounding the event, and the actual words of feedback you received.
So Hillary just called. Apparently, the woman I talked to yesterday about declawing felt I was judging her and she called Hillary to complain about me. The woman said I was “brusque, insensitive, and judgmental.”
Is there any truth to it?
Honestly asking yourself if there’s truth to the criticism is ridiculously hard. But it’s equally necessary. You may need to ignore the graceless delivery and look at the meaning of the feedback you received. Not everyone is gentle and compassionate when providing criticism, especially if they’re angry.
Sometimes the criticism isn’t warranted. Sometimes it has nothing to do with you and it’s just a reflection on the person criticizing you.
But even feedback that initially feels off base may hold a grain of truth. See if you can find it.
If I’m honest with myself, I’ll acknowledge the truth: she felt judged because I was judging her. I acted rude and better-than, and she was smart enough to realize I was being judgmental.
How does the feedback affect my goals?
It’s helpful to remember what you’re trying to accomplish on a higher level. This provides context for the criticism and reminds you why it’s important to learn from this experience.
I want to educate people and get as many shelter cats into loving homes as possible. This exchange did not further either of these goals. In fact, it totally botched both of them. She felt judged, so I didn’t get a chance to educate her because she was offended and shut down and not listening to a word I said. She left without adopting a cat. I failed on both accounts.
What can I learn from this criticism?
What is the feedback telling you? What’s the moral of the story?
Regardless of my intent, people feel judged when I speak to them the way I did. Even if my heart is in the right place, I can offend people if the words come out wrong. There’s a disconnect between what I’m feeling and what’s coming out of my mouth. People can’t see what I’m feeling, they can only hear what I’m saying. So I need to revise my speech to reflect what’s really going on inside.
5. Develop a Plan of Action
How do I make this right?
Do you owe an apology or do you need to fix something and make it right?
I need to apologize personally to the woman for being such as ass. I’ll get her phone number off the application she submitted.
I’d like to report that when I called to apologize, the woman offered her forgiveness with warmth and open arms. But that’s not quite how it went down. It was more like, “Well, you should be sorry, you miserable cretin.” I deserved it. But I didn’t call to win her forgiveness or make myself feel better. I called her because it was the right thing to do.
How can I do this differently next time?
This part is the nuts and bolts of brainstorming and working with the criticism effectively. It’s essential that you take action and learn from this valuable experience.
I need to focus on my goal of educating people. I need to remember that most people aren’t evil – they just don’t have all the information they need. It’s my job to get them that information. I need to educate them without triggering their defenses so they don’t slam the door in my face. If they leave without getting the information, I have failed. They’re just going to go elsewhere to get what they think they need.
Who can help?
Seek out someone who is successful at what you’re attempting and ask them to help you. Whether it means observing them or asking them to recommend resources, modeling is one of the fastest ways to learn and improve.
For me, talking about what’s happened and how I’m feeling quickly tempers the shame and guilt I feel over my behavior. A trusted friend can provide support, and usually you’ll get some comforting feedback like, “Oh I totally did that before, too. Isn’t it the worst?” Sharing your burden can help you get over it more quickly.
Nina is so amazing with people and so diplomatic. I’m working with her at the shelter on Saturday so I’m going to talk to her about what happened and ask her for pointers. Then I’m going to observe her having the declawing conversation with adopters and take notes on how she does it. I’ve never seen her ruffle anyone’s feathers but she certainly gets her point across.
Bob sent me that awesome quote: “Diplomacy is telling someone to go to hell and having them look forward to the trip.” I want to learn how to do that. Mainly so I can get away with telling people to go to hell.
I’m a Natural
The next time someone came in and mentioned declawing on their application, I took a deep breath and smiled. This is a test.
“I see you’re thinking about declawing,” I said casually. “Can you tell me a little bit about your concerns?” The adopter admitted she just bought a new leather couch and didn’t want it shredded.
Engaging in the role of supportive adviser, I offered the many non-surgical options for behavior modification, like scratching posts and double-sided tape. Then I asked her, “Are you familiar with the procedure of declawing?” When she shook her head, I illustrated on my own hand, “It’s actually ten separate amputations of the toe at the first knuckle.”
She paled, horrified. “Oh my god – I had no idea. I would never do that to my cat!” All she needed was the information, delivered compassionately. Problem solved.
As we finished the adoption paperwork, she said, “Thank you so much for all this help – I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know. You’re so good at this!”
I shot Nina a sideways glance and we shared a loaded smile. I thanked the proud parent and sent her home with a lovely new companion, claws intact.
My next West Coast challenge: small talk and four-way stops.