The mere phrase "Can I give you some advice?" is the stress-inducing equivalent of hearing footsteps in the dark, writes neuroscientist and author Dr. David Rock. As Rock explains, unsolicited advice puts you on the defensive. It makes you feel diminished, while the person offering the advice appears to be claiming superiority.
Unmerited criticism, fault-finding, unsolicited advice and sideswipes are some of the most aggravating things that can hit you unexpectedly. In fact, they can ruin your day and rob you of your focus, turning what was working out to be a productive day into one where you accomplish little to nothing.
Now, I'm not talking about the justified, constructive criticism or feedback that comes from trusted, well-intentioned sources or from clients who have valid reasons for complaining. Criticism from these sources can help you grow and improve. Rather, I'm talking about the malevolent and gratuitous criticism and unsolicited advice that land like an unguided scud missile and disrupt your peace of mind.
While you can't prevent your emotional reactions to these vexations, you can control your responses. Doing so with aplomb is the mark of an individual who's mastered both internal and external composure. Internal composure means you can acknowledge a negative emotion when it happens and not let it hijack your day. External composure means you can manage your responses to the incident. This is emotional intelligence in action.
Here are seven tips to help you deal with unfair criticism so you can continue to focus on what matters.
Accept That You Will Be Criticized
It's a known fact that if you try to stand out from the crowd, at some point, people will find a way to criticize you. Only those who play it safe, who fit conventional modes and never stick their neck out may be able to escape criticism. So come to terms with the fact that unjustified criticism is a natural part of life. It's often motivated by others' jealousy or envy, or by their unhappiness or dissatisfaction. It can also come from people who have too much idle time on their hands. People who are so busy with their own achievements generally don't waste time criticizing others' achievements.
Take a Soft Approach
Always take a soft approach when responding to mean-spirited criticism. This surprises people who expect you to react negatively. Disarm the person by thanking them and addressing their comment in a brief manner. Belaboring your response is a sign that the critic has succeeded in unsettling you. If you think there might be a kernel of truth buried in a scathing diatribe, use a practiced response such as "Thank you for your suggestion. I'll think about it." Whatever you do, don't engage in an emotional ping pong game.
Distinguish Between Good and Bad Critics
Good critics aim to help by providing you with a broader or different perspective from which to view your work. Bad critics, on the other hand, criticize others' work to elevate their own status or because they feel smug and superior. Author Scott Berkun puts it best: In Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds, Berkun writes that bad critics operate from the flawed assumption that there's one universal and objective measure of how good or bad something is and that the critic is in sole possession of this measurement skill. Anyone who doesn’t have this skill (including the creator of the work being criticized) is an idiot and should be ridiculed. These critics gain attention not by creating anything themselves but by criticizing what others create. What do you gain from letting these people vex you?
Stop Seeking Validation
One of the reasons that criticism stings is because we seek validation from others. Being criticized is the anti-thesis of feeling validated. If you decide to stop seeking validation, you're less likely to be vulnerable to the slings and arrows that come your way. At a minimum, raise your awareness of which metrics you're relying on to tell you that what you're doing is great. As bestselling author Seth Godin notes, many people rely on the wrong sources for validation, such as "critics who are loud, snarky and/or jealous, or people who never understand or appreciate work that's important and new." Some people's default mode is devaluing others. Don't use them as the touchstone for your work.
Be Prepared to React in the Moment
Negative comments you receive face-to-face are harder to deal with than those that come in some text format. These catch you unaware and are more likely to cause an immediate negative reaction that you later regret. Disagreeing with an unfair criticism only lends credence to it. In The Feeling Good Handbook, David D. Burns, professor of psychiatry at Stanford School of Medicine, calls this phenomenon "The Persuasive Law of Opposites": Try to disagree with your critic, and you'll increase his or her conviction that the accusations are absolutely valid.
So let go of the urge to disagree with the critical remarks, and go completely silent. Listen without defending. Maintain your composure by having a phrase in mind, such as "keep calm," that you repeat to yourself while the person is talking. Then make an innocuous observation such as, "How interesting." It helps to have a few of these stock responses that you can use to lower your emotional thermostat in the moment so you're not destabilized. This type of response signals to the other person that you've successfully avoided the punch. It's the verbal equivalent of Aikido.
Take an Emotional Time Out
Some unfair criticism is so unsettling that it can consume you for a large part of your day, not to mention spilling into the next day and causing a drain in your productivity. Psychologists often use the metaphor of not letting negative events "rent space" in your head. If you're over-thinking the negative comment, take some decisive steps to stop this. For example, if you receive a scathing comment on your blog, you have the right to delete it and create a more positive environment for your other readers. If it's a one-star review of your book, know that even bestselling authors get one-star reviews of their books, too. If it's an email, permanently delete it so you remove the urge to reread it. Take an emotional time out by focusing elsewhere.
Build Psychological Resilience to Criticism
It pays to work on building your resilience to criticism. To that end, pick up a copy of Mark McGuinness's book, Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism, and use his coaching tips. One of the simplest strategies McGuinness suggests is to sit still and do nothing for 20 minutes a day. As you sit, pay attention to the feel of the chair you're sitting on, the sensations in your body, the colors and shapes you see around you, the sounds you can hear, your breathing, your thoughts and your feelings. The goal of this exercise is not to put you in a relaxed state of mind. Rather, the aim is to pay attention to your physical, mental and emotional experience in the moment.
There are many benefits to doing this. For example, your mind becomes clearer, and your feelings calmer. When you practice this on a regular basis, you'll start to notice the same benefits in real life, not just in the 20-minute exercise. Give it a try. (You can also access some of the author's free resilience resources here.)
As an entrepreneur, you'll attract criticism from any number of sources: from employees and associates, from vendors and the investment community. But criticism is the price of admission for anyone who sets out to be daring, to be bold and to be different. The alternative is to be ordinary, and no one criticizes the ordinary.
Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.
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