Critical Condition

I’ve been busy this week working on some critiques. If you’re not familiar with critiquing, it’s the process in which a writer’s work is dissected, examined under a microscope, and returned with flashing neon signs attached every flaw. It is also the process in which writers realize we are not the beneficent creator gods that we believed ourselves to be, breathing life into perfectly formed characters and worlds. Instead, we learn that we’re flawed humans who write flawed plots and flawed characters.

Or at least how it can feel when you’re on the receiving end of a critique. Whatever you do in your life, having a spotlight shined on the flaws in your work can be difficult. No one wants to hear that their pet project has flaws and imperfections. Our instinct is to go on the defensive. We try to explain away the criticisms.

He just doesn’t understand my vision.

She’s getting payback for that time I criticized her new hairstyle.

They’re a bunch of jerks trying to make me look bad.

Whatever your current project is – writing a novel, raising a child, breeding rare orchids – you will encounter someone with a different opinion about how to do it. The criticism might be cruel or kind, helpful or destructive. Whatever form it takes, you might be tempted to dismiss it. If you do, you’ll avoid the pain of criticism, but you’ll also throw away a chance to improve your work.

If the knee-jerk reaction to criticism sounds familiar (it certainly does to me), I want to challenge you to look at things differently the next time you’re faced with a critic. I invite you to give the steps below a try and see if it changes how you feel about criticism. Explaining the process takes longer than doing it, so hang in there to the end.

Listen

How often do you find yourself formulating your response before someone else has finished speaking? I know that I’m guilty of this. Sometimes it’s a case of just being impatient. Or it might be that I’m rehearsing my response so that I don’t forget an important point. Resist the urge to do this when someone begins to criticize your work.

Stop and listen to every word they say. Take notice of their tone and body language. Listen as fully as you can. As tempting as it might be, don’t interrupt or walk away. As long as the person is not being abusive or making personal attacks, hang in there until they’ve finished.

Active listening gets easier with practice, but the first few times, you’ll probably fail. That’s ok, just keep trying.

Acknowledge and Understand

You’ve listened and now you’re ready with some snappy comebacks. Don’t. Remember that the idea is to see – and do – things differently.

Let the person know that you’ve heard them. Paraphrase their criticism and repeat it back to them to confirm that you’ve understood it. Ask questions if you need to clarify anything. Listen to their answers.

This is a good time to check for any underlying issues that are motivating the criticism. When your great-aunt Gertie tells you she doesn’t like your homemade meatballs, it might be that she doesn’t like the garlic. Or it could be that she’s comparing them to the meals that she ate on her honeymoon in Italy. Or she could be jealous that you’ve just usurped her position as the best cook in the family. Knowing the motivation can help to take the sting out the criticism.

Thank the person for sharing their thoughts – no, really, thank them. You might think they’re a complete jerk, but do your best to respond with a sincere thanks. Remind yourself that criticism of your work is not a judgment of you as a person.

Assess the Criticism

You’ll need to decide what to do with criticism, but first, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the person have knowledge or expertise in the subject?
  • Does the person have a stake in your success?
  • Does the criticism reflect your doubts or concerns?
  • Have you received the same criticism from other people?
  • Did the critic provide advice that you can act upon?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s time to take the criticism under consideration. Going back to those meatballs: What if great aunt Gertie is an award-winning chef known as the “Meatball Queen of the East Side”? What if Gertie has loaned you $10,000 to start your own catering business? What if you were already worried that you put in too much garlic into the mix? Worse yet, what if the entire family agrees that the meatballs just weren’t all that good?

Act (or Not)

If you answered no to all the questions in the last section, you’re done. Enjoy your day knowing the criticism is already fading into history.

If you decide the criticism has some merit, use it as an opportunity to improve your pet project. You don’t necessarily need to make every change that is suggested – nor should you try. Make those changes that you feel are the most beneficial.

Dismissing the criticism is an option at this point. If you know that you accidentally doubled the garlic in that meatball recipe, there’s nothing to be done. The criticism may be valid, but you can’t change the dish after it’s cooked. The best you can do is remember the lesson the next time.

Look at you, handling that criticism like a pro. If you’ve decided to try this little challenge, leave a comment or send me a message to let me know how it went.

Until next time!

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