• Annette Nilsson

Criticism

One of the most important skills in coaching is to deliver feedback to clients. It is in engaging with the client and her view of her situation which provides the chance for changing perspective.

However, in coaching, it is essential to ask for permission to deliver feedback, hence the receiver of the potential feedback has a chance to deny it. In other situations, feedback is often delivered without consensus and agreement, thus it can be helpful to have a strategy to handle negative feedback, as positive feedback is usually welcome.


To change perspective requires openness to a different version of ‘the truth’. Needless to say that there is no objective truth, but that is the subject of a different kind of blog. We all have our very own truth, based on our experiences, our imprint, and within our subjective truth, we try to make sense of our own experiences, and the behaviour of others.

However, as social beings, we depend on engaging with others, and within this interaction, our version of the truth gets challenged, and we need to be open to the truth, that is the ideas or opinions of others. We need to consider that there could be something in their point of view which might for example contribute to the solution of a problem.


So what has a criticism or negative feedback to do with our truth?


Dealing with feedback, and especially negative feedback is a tricky business. When we receive negative feedback - how nice it might be wrapped - we feel uncertain, insecure, we doubt our worthiness, and what we thought was true. It shakes the beliefs we have about ourselves, our behaviour, and our interactions.

Many of us have an underlying sense of constant and nagging inadequacy, negative feedback might just what we do not want to hear, but maybe exactly what we need to hear. If criticism intentionally and mostly unintentionally addresses exactly those sore spots many of us react with at least mild irritation. What if we could change perspective, and receive criticism or negative feedback with not necessarily open arms but as a well-intended act of social interactions, as an invitation for self-reflection?

Thus, receiving negative feedback does not mean that you either totally lose it and declare the other one incompetent, or that you take it all to heart. You can grow your resilience to deal with negative feedback, that is criticism by thinking about the following steps:

  1. Stay calm, collect yourself, keep breathing. Listen to what is said, but don’t forget to notice the emotions which come up in you! What are the primary feelings: pain, fear, embarrassment, shame, and what are the secondary feelings: anger, defensiveness, exaggerated fear? The connection between primary and secondary emotions is tight, and they connect very quickly. We have a small chance to interrupt that cycle, and engage with our primary emotions, and assess the secondary emotions in terms of their appropriateness.

  2. Detached listening - this is not to say that you should wander off, but try to keep a bit more distance to the words which are being said, and leave space to monitor yourself, are you immediately judging the other, yourself? Are you trying to understand from the perspective of the other one?

  3. If it is all too much, take a break! Leave the situation, have a glass of water, evaluate the severity, and then allow for a reaction

  4. In every feedback or criticism lies a grain of useful information. Mind you, it is not about truth, it is about whether the feedback you just received could be helpful for you to better navigate life, work, or a relationship. What is not useful to you, dismiss it, let it go respectfully.

To deliver negative feedback requires good timing, empathy, and the awareness that giving feedback is based on the willingness of another person to actively engage with us. Why would someone bother to criticize us? You could just walk away and leave it. Maybe the other person wants to help us to see a different perspective, and it is not a criticism at all, it is an act of kindness. According to Alain de Botton, criticism is the wrong word which we apply to a much nobler idea, the idea of care and wishing for the other one to do and be well.

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