Everyone faces criticism; it’s one of life’s inevitabilities. School, work, relationships, and of course, fellow drivers all like to let us know we’re doing something wrong. Not all criticism is the same. Sometimes, it feels more personal, but other times, you simply care less about the message being given. When teaching complaint behavior in Interpersonal Communication, we note that complaints regarding one’s performance and personal characteristics are harder to accept. For example, if I say, “You didn’t do the dishes,” that’s less problematic than “You suck at doing the dishes” or “You’re a messy person.”
I find that once I’ve proven myself in an area, I’m less apt to be ruffled by negative comments. I’ve been teaching a long time. That does not mean I’m a perfect teacher, but by and large I know my strengths and weaknesses. I don’t worry that negative feedback there will throw me off balance or call into question my choice of profession.
I’m much newer to fiction writing. As a result, I am more sensitive. Being involved in writing groups, it’s clear that many writers struggle with accepting constructive criticism. Writers aren’t alone. It’s the same thing that causes fights in marriages, creates conflict in jobs, etc. There is a ton of information out there on how to offer appropriate criticism.
There’s plenty of information on how to deal with being on the receiving end of that same criticism. Much of it is easier said than done. “Keep an open mind.” Okay, fine, but ….
Here are some tools I use which I lifted pretty directly from cognitive dissonance and complaint behavior theory. It’s not exhaustive, by any means.
1. Ask genuine questions rather than arguing.
Sometimes, we balk at criticism because we don’t understand it. Much communication conflict is steeped in miscommunication. Don’t be afraid to seek more information. Have a conversation where you explore what was going on in the critic’s mind. Avoid beginning with questions like “Why did you say that?” and instead ask the person to describe or provide examples. This will help prevent you from rationalizing.
Instead of trying to win a debate, take the “I’m confused” approach. I’ve noticed in writing groups, that over time, members of the critique circle grow weary of giving feedback to someone who argues back, so ultimately, they stop being constructive. If you want a bunch of people to read (or listen to you sing or watch you present a speech) you work and tell you it’s wonderful, I suppose arguing is a good way to get there in the long run, but it will also mean there may be gaping holes in your novel (or your brownies may taste bad or art may lack depth).
2. Talk to yourself.
Early in the morning when no one’s up, you might find me talking to my computer screen. Instead of arguing with the critic, argue with yourself. By formulated the response I would have to a critic, I can often find the flaws in my own argument.
Play devil’s advocate. You might have an emotional reaction to the feedback. Don’t shoot the messenger; have it out with yourself. It may lead you somewhere you don’t expect. It may confirm what you already believe or you might find truth in the critique.
You may find your disagree completely with reviewer, and that’s okay. We always have a choice to ignore the criticism as long as we’re prepared to accept any potential consequences.
3. Look for patterns
Criticism is subjective. You could ask ten people for an opinion and get ten different answers. That means it’s also acceptable to choose not to follow some advice you’re given—provided you’ve listened well and critically evaluated the message. What it isn’t wise to do is to ignore patterns of criticism. People may not use the same words, so this can require some work. List them out on paper. Underline them. Highlight them in different colors. Then go through and look for what they have in common.
4. Be Patient.
I put this last. And I had a hard time waiting to talk about it. J There are two ways patience can be a virtue with criticism. The first, is that like any conflict, our initial reaction is tainted by emotion. If you wait a day, go back and read or listen to criticism, you may see it with a more open mind.
The other need for patience comes when we agree with the criticism. When it comes to writing and revision (and I would venture other areas), our desire to hurry up and finish so we can hurry up and publish means someone offers and critic and we run back to our manuscript to fix it immediately. Try waiting a while after receiving the criticism to deal with bigger picture issues. Not forever. Not so long you forget the gist of it. But time to think, to let it work into your subconscious.
Rushing revision can result in too shallow a revision.
What criticism is most difficult for you to accept? What tools do you use to deal with criticism?