Saved By Criticism

I remember one afternoon about three years ago. It was a steamy Hong Kong summer; the humidity was oppressive and sticky - even under the shade of a Banyan tree Emma and I were resting underneath. We were in a park near our office because we needed to “have a talk.”

It was also a heated time in our business. Stress levels were high. We were under pressure fighting fires on projects, hiring, managing finances, developing new business, and doing everything we could to thrive. We hadn’t been getting much sleep or exercise. It was a time of surviving on coffee and passion alone.

As we sat there in the park, Emma looked stressed. By the expression on her face, I could tell there was an inner conflict brewing. I sat silently, waiting. The words finally came out.

“I don’t know if I want to be your business partner”, she said. My jaw dropped. With just a few words, I was cut deep.

FEEDBACK THAT HURTS

All of us, no matter who we are, have had tough conversations. Words are powerful things. They carry incredible weight.

In that moment, my thoughts turned to how we had been busting our ass side-by-side for two straight years building up a business. As business partners, we’d done everything together. We’d experienced the highs together. We’d experienced the lows together.

And in that moment, my bubble was popped. The entire basis of our business partnership was brought into question, and I sat there as she proceeded to share an extensive and elaborate list of her frustrations with me. I was flooded with negative feedback.

HOW TO HANDLE NEGATIVE FEEDBACK

This is not a unique situation. Research shows 60 - 80% of business partnerships fail. Tension is an inherent part of a business partnership. Disagreement, conflict, and dissatisfaction are all embedded in the DNA of business partnerships.

Further, this happens outside of business partnerships as well. All of us can think back to a tough conversation where we’ve been on the receiving end of negative feedback. This is part of normal work life, and this is part of relationships in general.

So it begs the question, what is the best way to handle these situations? How can we make something positive out of these tough conversations? How can we effectively deal with negative feedback and use it fuel personal growth?

On that particular day, I experienced a rollercoaster of emotion. At first confusion, then sadness, then anger. I sat there stunned and thought to myself: ”What do I do next?”

RUINED BY PRAISE

Norman Vincent Peale, the grandfather of the Positive Thinking movement had something useful to say on this matter; "The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

Peale suggests that negative feedback is actually a good thing. And that praise alone is insufficient to help us grow and become better.

Human nature is to seek praise. It feels good. We delight in how amazing we are. Negative feedback, on the other hand, is something we avoid like the plague. It feels awful. We wallow in low-energy and depressed thoughts.

But what if criticism was extremely powerful? What if we actively sought it out and mastered it? Could it actually improve our lives? 

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.

PAIN = CHANGE

We’ve known for thousands of years that two things motivate humans: pleasure and pain. People pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Pain is one half of the human motivational equation. It’s an asset to be used. Experiencing negative feedback can be an extremely effective motivator for positive change, if handled properly. But there’s an art to managing negative feedback. Just ignoring it doesn’t work. Neither does dwelling on it extensively. The path to success is a tricky trail.

In my last article on feedback I suggested that it’s helpful to ask a lot of questions to understand the feedback. I also suggested it’s good to approach the whole exercise with gratitude. Below are some additional tips that can help you tread that path successfully.

1. REMEMBER THAT YOU’RE NOT PERFECT

Why should it be a surprise that someone gives you negative feedback? Of course they should! Human beings are born awed. If you can keep this thought in your mind, it helps to give perspective on the whole situation. The problem is our ego.

For some reason, our ego is hyper-sensitive. The smallest bit of negative feedback can strike a nerve, creating a huge amount of distress. It’s important to recognise this about the ego, and remember that of course we’re not perfect!

2. FIGHT THE URGE TO DEFEND YOURSELF

When someone gives you negative feedback, it’s natural to want to defend yourself. But instead of trying to counter-argue their point, look for the kernel of truth in what they’re saying. Give it time. Really think about it. You don’t have to agree with everything they say, but the feedback is an opportunity to improve. What can you take away to be better?

3. FOCUS ON ACTION

Above all, focus on actions you can take to improve. The quicker you can get to action, the faster you can move on. Actions make you feel empowered because you know exactly what to do to make a situation better.

4. PROACTIVELY ASK FOR NEGATIVE FEEDBACK

‘Criticism’ has become a dirty word. People are reluctant to impart negative feedback; it’s scary to possibly hurt someone’s feelings. So we sanitise our feedback to each other. For this reason, it’s very rare to find a person who is direct and unabashedly critical. Given this state of affairs, I believe we need to proactively ask for negative feedback. People won’t give it unless we proactively ask what they really think.

THREE YEARS LATER...

It’s been three years since Emma and I were sitting under that Banyan tree. We are still business partners.

Every day we dedicate our lives to making work, work. And while our business partnership isn’t perfect, through a lot of honest communication we’ve been able to get through every challenge the world has thrown at us. We praise each other. And we also challenge each other.

I’m happy to report that the glue that holds us together is a deep sense of trust. At the end of the day, I know I can count on her, and she feels the same. 

I believe we need to proactively ask for negative feedback. People won’t give it unless we proactively ask what they really think.