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Diffusing Criticism

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Why do you approach criticism the same way you approach an unguarded railroad crossing?

I recently spoke about diffusing criticism and opened by asking that question. At an unguarded railroad crossing your life is at stake. When you receive harsh criticism, your self-image and reputation can be at stake if you act wrongly.

How is criticism received in your brain?

We have a composite brain broadly described by Bert Decker to consist of the First Brain, the seat of our emotions, and the New Brain, the seat of our reasoning. When the First Brain and the New Brain conflict, we do stupid things. Have you read about a motorist that tried to beat a fast train to a railroad crossing and died as a result of his stupid behavior? The primitive running down a gazelle on the savannah takes control over the reasoning motorist.

In the same way, our First Brain urges us to take stupid actions to criticism. We may withdraw to stop communicating. We may counterattack, thinking we’ve been attacked. Or, we may rationalize away the criticism, missing an opportunity to grow and learn.

How will you handle criticism when your are at that potentially dangerous crossing?

First Brain Engagement

Criticism raises your pulse, races your mind, and can make you a deer in the headlights. That’s your First Brain taking charge of the situation. Although the First Brain is deaf, dumb, and blind, it demands you recognize and work with it. We speak to it through our behaviors. Do what you’d do at an unguarded railroad crossing: Stop, Look, and Listen.

  • Stop – Get off your cellphone, look away from your computer, put away distractions to signal your First Brain to pay attention. The First Brain reacts to criticism by increasing and decreasing respiration as it prepares you to run or to hide. Take control of your breath and count your breaths to convince the First Brain its plan to run or hide is unnecessary. Focus your attention on being present.
  • Look – Give the person your full attention as you focus on eyes, body language, and speech. You can tell a lot from eye contact and body language, such as “Is this person being honest with me?” “Is the tone of voice consistent with what’s said?”
  • Listen – Tell yourself it’s okay to listen. Criticism can only hurt you by the way you react. Engage your First Brain and New Brain. “Is the eye contract and body language consistent with what’s being said?” “What are the key points that you hear?”

New Brain Engagement

People criticize to motivate change or to punish. Punishment is not a healthy dialogue intended to improve your performance. Disengage from punishing criticism, just as you would avoid a dangerous railroad crossing. If the person intends to help you improve your performance, you’ve got to engage your New Brain to understand what’s said and how you can benefit by it.

  • Repeat and paraphrase – Are you sure you heard or understood what’s said? Repeat or paraphrase what you’ve heard to confirm what’s been said. If done with sincerity and a proper tone of voice, the other person will appreciate that you are listening and thinking about what’s said. Pilots repeat to ground control what they hear. If you were approaching a railroad crossing, and your passenger mumbled, “I think a train is approaching,” you would immediately repeat, “Did you say that a train is approaching?” What works in the air and on the ground, works when you receive criticism.
  • Ask questions –  You learned in school that asking questions reinforces your understanding of the materials. Asking questions also coordinates your New Brain and First Brain, as you signal that it’s okay to go into unfamiliar feelings and understandings.

Deal with Feelings First

You’ll notice that your first reaction to criticism is to engage the First Brain. That’s counter to what we’re taught in school and often at home – think and analyze first, sympathize last. If you want to learn from sincere criticism, you’ve got to be present, and to be present you’ve got to be emotionally present.

The heart has its reason which reason knows not of. ~ Blaise Pascal

As you coordinate your feelings and thinking, you are prepared to empathize with the feelings of the other person. Perhaps the reason for the criticism is a perceived hurt or slight that can’t be expressed in words. If you refrain from judgment and know the other person’s point of view, you can distinguish the valid emotions from the reasoned criticism you received. A simple apology – not a denial – is the answer when the person feels you caused a hurt.

Behavior Tips

Your behaviors telegraphs your state of mind. A few simple ones can be a life-saver when you are unsure of the purpose of the criticism.

  • Remain calm
  • Show respect
  • Smile
  • Use an open body posture

Conclusion

You approach criticism the same way you approach an unguarded railroad crossing, because a bad response can damage your self-image and reputation. We’re all aware of what happened when a candidate for the presidency reacted poorly to criticism. We think, how could the candidate have be so stupid?

Diffusing and learning from criticism is a valuable skill for everyone.

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