How well do you take criticism?
Don’t feel bad if you don’t take it well. I don’t know many people that do, and in my life I’ve met a lot, lot, lot of people. It sucks to be told you’ve made a mistake, and it sucks even more to be told you’re wrong.
To make you feel better, I will tell you something about myself.
I am hands down one of the worst criticism-takers in the history of the world.
[Insert here loud guffaws from my family and friends. “YA THINK?!” Also add head shakes, deep sighs, and eye rolls from any man that I’ve ever spent more than five minutes with. Criticism from men is an extra bad no-no.]
I say this now with calm delivery, and no humor intended. Criticism makes me ragey.
STABBY ANGRY FURY. Bloodrage.
It’s not the criticism in and of itself that makes steam roll out of my ears. I understand very well that I’m not perfect, and I know I make mistakes. I have a lot to learn about a lot of things, and even though I consider my brain to be my best quality I know that sometimes I’m wrong.
The thing that gets me about criticism, is that by its very definition it is an opinion based action.
Criticism is defined as “the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything; passing severe judgment; faultfinding; the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of literary, artistic, musical, or dramatic work.”
In fact, I’m so sensitive to criticism I created a super-perceptive system to brace myself against any unwanted judgment. Check it out:
- I have learned to tell when it’s coming at me. Sentences that start with “you should,” “I told you,” or “Well, you know” (but it comes out with a declarative lilt, like “WELL. You KNOOOOO-oh.”) put me on DEFCON-1, and my mental and emotional states go into lockdown. My brain screams “BRACE YOURSELF,” and I do.
- I overthink EVERYTHING, and then I think some more. Very, very rarely do circumstances take me by surprise. Very rarely do conversations take me by surprise. Even less rarely do PEOPLE take me by surprise. Often when I hear criticism coming, I’ve got a logical, well thought out rebuttal at my disposal, and QUICKLY. I was once told “I don’t even argue with you, you’ve already won before we start.”
- I have identified the people that are most negative and critical, and I choose to talk to them less, share with them less when we do talk, or spend less time with them altogether. Feeling like crap is no fun. Feeling judged is no fun. Why spend time with people that make you feel bad most of the time?
- I have spent all but the last year of my life attempting to be perfect. No mistakes, no judgment. Right?
…yeah, not so much.
And really, if you read the super-productive system carefully (not to mention all the angry rage), would you want to hang out with someone that did all those things? When something came up and you needed to talk to them, would you want to do it? Another way to read the system is this:
- Intelligent, but argumentative, assaulting, and defensive.
- Closed off and dismissive. Oh, and also more defensive.
- Deluded, and really not going to happen.
Doesn’t sound like anyone you’d really want to open up to and talk about your opinions with, does it.
Well, in my case, no one really did.
For a very, very long time, no one ever told me what they thought about me. Rightly so, considering the way I tend to react. In fact, no one really told me much of ANYTHING.
Sure, I’d have conversations with people about what they were doing at work, or we’d talk about people that wasn’t me or them. When it was something else, I am and always have been a great listener. I am great at listening to people talk about a lot of things, but never about ME. No-no talking about me. I didn’t want to hear it, and I didn’t want to share. I didn’t want to be judged, and I didn’t want to hear all the ways I could-have-should-have been better.
I spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people, but I never really spent much time talking about me. I never really spent much time LISTENING about me, because I couldn’t suspend my emotional reaction long enough or far enough to hear what they needed to say.
After a lot of years and a lot of conflict with friends, co-workers, and employees, something finally clicked in my head. (You can read about that story here, if you have the time.) I realized that if I was busy reacting emotionally to what was being said, I was missing it. I wasn’t actually listening and hearing, I was too busy plowing through and pushing back with my feelings.
It took a long time and a lot of introspection, but I finally realized you cannot actively listen to someone unless you are able to suspend your emotion, deal with their words first, then deal with how you feel later.
Active Listening means suspending emotion, and seeking first to understand before being understood.
“Suspended emotion.” Yup, it means exactly what you think it means, and for some people and certain subjects (**pointing finger at myself**) it is harder than you could imagine.
The problem I had with taking criticism (and being a good listener in general) was my inability to suspend my emotion.
For some, suspending emotion is fairly easy. I can think of a few people I’ve met that can easily do it regardless of the subject of discussion. Not surprisingly, each of those people is an excellent listener.
For the rest of us though… “Yeah, right.” Suspending emotion for most people is a very, very difficult thing to do. How are you supposed to suspend emotion when you’re discussing something that makes your blood boil? How am I supposed to NOT GET ANGRY when you’re telling me “you should, I told you, well you know…?”
How does a pro-lifer suspend emotion and listen actively to a person talking about their need for an abortion? How do you suspend emotion when you’re listening to your husband talk about his adultery, or your child talk about their deception? How do you suspend emotion when your boss is chewing your ass for not doing your job, when you’ve been trying to tell him for weeks that you need help?
It took a lot of practice, but I got better at it. I STILL FEEL RAGE when I’m criticized, but now I choose to wait before I express how I feel. It is hard, but just like everything else that has anything to do with Growing People, with practice, intention, and perspective it does get easier.
To be fair, there are some things that hurt so much you will never, ever be able to suspend your emotion. We’re not ROBOTS, we feel and love and celebrate and grieve. Active listening and suspended emotion does not set the expectation that you do not feel, it means we find a way to cope with what we feel, just for a little bit, while the other person is talking. No matter how well trained or practiced, if my child comes to me to tell me that they’ve been hurt or abused or bullied, I will not be able to NOT FEEL. I will feel, and if it involves my kids or The Mister I will feel HARD. My job, though, is to COPE. My job is to WAIT, and breathe, and shelf what I’m feeling, FOR THEM. For their story, and for their words. When actively listening, our job is to encourage the one speaking to keep talking, and to be a source of support and refuge.
There will be times when the emotion we feel surpasses our ability to cope. When that happens, when we absolutely just CANNOT EVEN while we listen, we must know our limits. When we’re so emotional that suspending our feelings seems impossible, we must do one of two things. 1) We may participate passively in the conversation, meaning “speak up but gently and passively, while still supporting the other aspects of active listening,” or 2) we must take a break. Regardless of your outward emotional expression, you cannot listen actively and completely when you’re wrestling with your own feelings. If you need a break, take one.
If you need to cry, stop the conversation and do it. If you need to be angry, ask for a minute and go be angry. Take a walk, stand in the closet and scream. There have been times when I have hit my limit, and I just could not listen to any more. I was unable to suspend my emotion, I was unable to calm down even when I took five. When that happens, the most respectful and productive course of action is to PAUSE. I worked for a time at a restaurant that used a HUGE walk-in freezer, when I got particularly angry I’d go stand in it and count to 100 (tough to be pissed when you’re hypothermic).
Please note: Suspending emotional REACTION is not the same as suspending EMOTION. Just because you’re not screaming and pounding the table does not mean you’re not upset. The goal, when active listening, is to postpone emotion. To WAIT. To bundle it up and set it aside, to deal with the person’s words and perspective FIRST, and THEN deal with your own reaction.
No matter how upset, active listening means we do everything we can to set ourselves aside and make room for understanding. There is nothing wrong with saying “I can’t do this right now, I need time, let’s find another time to talk, I want to listen to you but right now I’m not able to.” With the right connection and the right Depth, the person speaking will respect your request. No conversation is worth destroying a relationship; if you need time to cope in order to be productive and active while you listen, take it.
The second aspect of this step in active listening is “seeking first to understand, before being understood.”
In other words, when dealing with personal criticism, that means “I’ll sit here and try to understand why you think I’m wrong before I try to defend myself.”
DOES THAT MAKE YOUR EYEBALLS STEAM?!
Yeah, mine too.
DEFENSIVE, remember? “Defense” is in three parts of my four part plan against criticism. Except now I have to NOT.
Seeking first to understand before being understood is tough. It is easiER when we can suspend our emotions, but it is still hard. We disagree. PEOPLE disagree. People say things that strike us as wrong, and we immediately want to defend. When the conversation is about US, when we’re expected to listen to someone talk about their problems with US, we want to correct. And argue, and put our fists up.
Active listening is above that. Active listening is about understanding where the speaker is coming from FIRST, THEN explaining. Only when we listen and understand what our actions and choices have done to someone else can we explain, and only when we know how we’ve caused harm or hurt can we appropriately apologize. Listening is not a time for you to plan what you’re going to say next, or time to be used formulating your rebuttal. Active listening is time to walk in someone else’s shoes, and learn, and understand. It is how we can most deeply connect with someone on a mental and emotional level.
Active listening is about understanding as best you can what it’s like to BE the speaker. It is not about you or how you feel, it is not about what you think or what you know. When you listen actively, suspend what you think or feel and put it second to the person you are attempting to connect with.
As a mother, it looks like this:
Child Number 2: “Mommy, I broke your favorite cup.”
Me (inside): “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH I TOLD YOU FIFTY TIMES NOT TO PLAY WITH THAT THING AND YOU DID AND YOU BROKE IT AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!! SONOFA…. I WONDER HOW MUCH I CAN GET IF I SELL YOU TO THE GYPSIES, PROBABLY NOT ENOUGH TO GET A NEW CUP DAMNIT!”
Me (outwardly): **DEEEEEP SIGH** “I need a timeout.” And then I take one. A few minutes later I return, and I ask the question, “Why were you touching my cup? How come it got broken?”
And then I LISTEN. Regardless of the explanation or lesson or consequence for disobedience, I’m listening FIRST to their side of the story, and I’m doing it calmly. They will remember that I heard them, and they will understand that even if there is a punishment, “Mommy loves me, she was disappointed but she still loves me.”
As an employer, it looks like this:
Matt the employee, walking into work fifteen minutes late: “Sorry I’m late, something came up.”
Me (inside): “WHAT THE HELL. We JUST had this conversation last week. YOU KNOW YOU NEED TO BE HERE ON TIME, YOU’VE ALREADY BEEN WRITTEN UP, NOW I have to SUSPEND YOUR ASS. DAMNIT DAMNIT, now I’m short staffed, and I get to spend the next hour on the phone trying to find someone to cover your shift. DAMNIT.”
Me (outwardly): **DEEEEEP SIGH** (While raising children and managing employees, I do a lot of deep sighing. It’s how I suspend emotion!) “Matt, you’re KILLING ME. What happened, Buddy? We just talked about this.”
Employee: “Yeah, I know, but stuff came up. My girlfriend……”
And then I LISTEN. To the story, regardless of how legitimate, necessary, relevant, or significant to his tardiness or the resulting consequence. Even though he’s still in trouble, even though he’s still getting suspended, even though I don’t believe in excuses, I listen, and I listen calmly. He will remember that I heard him, and he will feel relevant and valued even though he isn’t allowed to come into work for three scheduled shifts. He will take the consequence he’s earned, and he will return after it is done with a better attitude and effort to do better the next go-round.
And so I put it to you. Can you suspend emotion to be a more active listener?
How To Dig:
- Learning to Listen Actively depends COMPLETLEY on your willingness to put yourself second. When your boss comes to you with criticism, “how you feel” needs to take second place to “what is best for the company, my job, and my performance.” When your child comes to you to confess wrongdoing, or to talk about a hard day at school, “how you feel about what they did” or “how you feel they should have handled it” takes second place to your child. How they feel is all that matters. How your boss feels, in that moment you’re listening, is all that matters. This sounds incredibly harsh, but the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten with regard to suspending emotion is this: “Get over yourself.” It is not about you, it is not about how you feel. It is about the person that is talking. That’s it.
- When you are trying to listen and you feel yourself getting upset, take a deep breath. (Deep sighs, remember?) Lean back a bit in your chair to detach some from the conversation. Breathe again. Remember that “I will have a turn to talk,” and “what I am feeling needs to wait.”
- Again, look into the eyes of the one speaking, and LOOK HARD. Empathize. Put yourself in THEIR shoes, and in THEIR emotions. Listen to what their hearts are telling you, not just their words.
- Maintain perspective. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.” This is hugely morbid, but during really, really tough listening sessions I remind myself, “None of this will matter if I’m dead, I AM STILL ALIVE, that is all that matters.” The appropriate perspective makes a huge, huge impact on suspending emotion. When your boss comes to you to chew your ear, remind yourself that bosses come and go. “THIS ONE IS TEMPORARY, because I will be here longer than he will.” Or, in the words of Dane Cook, “Carpe Deeznuts, MAN I CAN’T WAIT TO QUIT THIS JOB.” When your kids come to you, remember how small they are, or how small they once were. Remember a good day or a day yet to come. Often if we can juxtapose “this one conversation on this one day” against the greater workings of the universe, our emotions follow suit and seem equally small.
Before you are presented with an opportunity to listen, ask yourself these questions:
- How do I cope when I get really upset?
- Can I sit and talk through anger without being angry, or do I need to take a break?
- What are some good tactics I can use for calming down, “in the moment?” Breathing, tapping, touch?
- Where are my limits with regard to my temper and emotional well being?
- How can I extend those and become better at staying level headed?
- What questions can I ask myself when I start to get upset that trigger “perspective?” What thoughts help me to maintain proper perspective?
Good luck, happy listening, and HAPPY DIGGING! Forge that Depth, one conversation at a time.