There are two kinds of negative feedback, the kind that – as painful as it is – is generally accurate and helpful and the kind that is totally without merit. Let’s look at this last kind of criticism first.
In an interview in YM magazine screenwriter, director, producer Kevin Williams talked about a high school teacher named Mrs. Tingle who whittled away at William’s confidence to such an extent that he says he “didn’t write another word for 10 years.” Williamson says, “I always feel like a fraud. There’s always that ‘Mrs. Tingle’ thing lurking in me.”
Williamson isn’t the only one to get negative feedback early on. Thomas Edison was thrown out of school in the early grades when the teachers decided he could not do the work. Bob Dylan’s classmates booed him off the stage at a high school talent show. A famous Paramount Pictures screen test report on Fred Astaire read simply: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Slightly balding. Can dance a little.”
Back in November, I told you about an enterprising client of mine named Cindy Freidman. In less than a year, this software sales rep turned wine educator has made tremendous strides in launching her dream business. But then Cindy hit a common stumbling block – criticism. It hasn’t derailed her, but like a lot of people, it did rattle her.
First a little background. After 16 years in the software industry in Marin County, California, the then 39-year-old decided it was time to get off the fast track. She quit her high-pressured sales job and moved to a less expensive area of the state to work in the field she really loved, wine and food.
Someone else might have considered the job “beneath them” (what I call a “job snob”), but when a part time position opened up at a very successful wine bar and cheese shop, she went for it. Much more than a retail job, Cindy says she found herself helping customers seeking recommendations on what wine to pair with a specific menu and helping the owner with special events, including wine tasting classes.
After picking up invaluable experience and expanding her already commanding knowledge of wine, Cindy went on to complete a special Mastering Wine Course at the Culinary Institute of America, widely recognized as one the top culinary schools in the world. It was there that Cindy learned to master the so-called blindfold test where smell and taste alone are used to distinguish between the many varieties of wine.
In less than a year, Cindy has become what a local newspaper reporter called a “Wine Connoisseur.” Her new business, Events of the Vine (EventsOfTheVine.com), caters to people who are inspired to learn more about wine. Cindy’s strategy was to partner with local wineries to hold a series of affordable wine seminars. Attendees get to meet the wine makers, tour the facility, and best of all, taste up to six different kinds of wine. By the end of the event, even wine novices who normally feel intimidated among wine snobs learn how to judge a wine with confidence.
With this success under her belt, Cindy went on to arrange to run a seminar series for an Italian restaurant, conduct private in-house training for the partners and employees of a recently opened wine shop, and put on a wine and food pairing event for a wine lounge a few towns away. “I can’t remember ever working this hard,” says Cindy, “and at the same time I can’t remember ever enjoying something as much!”
Cindy’s fledgling business is going great guns. The contracts are rolling in and she’s consistently earned high marks on her post-seminar evaluations. All but one, that is. At the urging of a local hotel concierge, a group from Denver showed up at one of Cindy’s seminars. Everyone seemed to be having a great time – but one. The crossed arms, loud sighs, and rolling eyes were just a preview of what was to come. When it came time to fill out the evaluations, the man noted that the course was of no value. Furthermore, he suggested that Cindy should “keep her day job.”
No one likes criticism. But some people, women in particular, tend to take criticism to heart. At least that’s what Tony DiCicco, coach of the 1999 World Champion US Women’s National Soccer team finds. Today show host Matt Lauer asked the DiCicco to clarify past statements that he coached women differently then men. The coach began by saying that he believes (as I do) that “the similarities are more common than the differences.” Adding, “But there are differences.”
For example, DiCicco said, “If I go into a room of women, I can say, ‘We have some players that aren’t fit,’ and they all think I’m talking about them individually. If I did the same thing with men and went into a room and said that same thing, the men on the team would go, ‘Coach is right, I’m the only one fit here. The rest of these guys better get it together.'” As DiCicco put it, “women internalize everything.”
Ascribing blame to ourselves for every failure or criticism presents a problem. If you believe the reason your fledgling business is floundering is because you aren’t working hard enough, what’s the solution? Work harder, right? But if you believe your failure is because you just aren’t bright enough or otherwise aren’t up to the job, the only solution is to give up.
Gender aside, if you’re thrown by criticism (and I know many men that are), there are things you can do to better handle the inevitable slings and arrows. Here are a few tips for dealing with criticism from my newest eBook, How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are (ChangingCourse.com/handbook.htm).
Diffuse Likely Critics Up Front
One technique specific to Cindy’s situation, and the one she typically uses, is to ask the group to introduce themselves and say why they signed up for the class. Anyone who was forced to attend will usually make themselves known giving Cindy an opportunity to address any specific concerns or even invite a know-it-all attendee to share their knowledge with the group. “I skipped that step on this one because the class was so large,” explained Cindy. “It was a big mistake and one I’ll never make again.”
Sometimes criticism is valid. Sometimes it’s not. In Cindy’s case it sounds like she was dealing with what I call a seminar “hostage.” One of the very first things I do in all of my corporate seminars is to do a little “how you got here roll call.”
Basically I tell my audiences that regardless of the topic at hand, there are three kinds of people who tend to show up at any seminar – students, vacationers, and hostages. Students are there to learn. Seminar vacationers are primarily interested in a paid day away from the office. And of course the group I affectionately refer to as my seminar hostages or prisoners are there because someone ELSE thought it would be a good idea for them to attend. In a corporate setting it’s usually their boss. In the case of Cindy’s disgruntled attendee he could have been dragged along by his traveling companions.
Beyond enjoying a good laugh the point of the exercise is to publicly address the plight of any seminar hostages right from the get go. Giving them a chance to “get it off their chest,” can often diffuse at least some of these people’s resentment and hopefully avoid any sabotaging or otherwise disruptive behavior. In fact, in my experience, since seminar hostages come in expecting the least they often walk away having gained the most!
Diffusing critics among your family or friends requires different techniques. One is to withhold any plans to change course until you’ve done your home work. In other words, find people who are succeeding in the field or business where your interests lie and try to learn everything you can from them. This information could come in the form of a book, seminar, or informational interview. That way, when your family and friends start shooting down your idea based on their ill-informed fears, you’ll be ready for them.
My other suggestion for diffusing unconstructive criticism from the dream bashers in your life is simple – keep your dreams to yourself. Why? Because while they may care deeply for and about you, they simply don’t know how to support your stepping outside the traditional job box. I’m a bit shaky on the source and the exact wording, but I remember Barbara Winter telling our seminar attendees once about a Sufi saying that goes something like this: When embarking on a journey, never ask for directions from someone who has never left home.
Seek Additional Information
After getting over the initial shock of receiving such a rude evaluation, Cindy went on to handle the situation like a pro. Understanding that, “as my business grows and I become more successful, I am going to get criticism and I am certainly not going to please everybody all the time,” she decided to confront the situation head on. Since she had their email addresses she sought out the group to thank the group as a whole for attending and for their constructive feedback. She then went on to ask for more specific, constructive feedback from the person who did not enjoy the class so that she might address any legitimate areas for improvement.
Take What You Can And Leave The Rest
It’s been said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Unless you’ve got a really tough skin, when someone criticizes your behavior, effort, or performance, it hurts. There are times though, when critical feedback is necessary to improve.
Think about it. If no one in the audience let on that they didn’t understand a key point in your speech, you would go on delivering a confusing speech. If people back away from working with you because you’re controlling, but no one ever gave you that feedback, you would continue alienating people and never know why. If your golf swing is off, but your instructor didn’t want to upset you by mentioning it, you would never improve your swing.
When faced with criticism of your performance or idea, do what engineers do and engage in your own form of “failure analysis.” To do this simply ask yourself what went wrong and how could you could do it better next time. Then thank the person who was willing to share their critique and move on.
Use the Q-Tip Approach
This last tip came by way of a couple seminar attendees who teach at the Coast Guard Academy. When they were going through the officer training program, male and female cadets went through all of the training as a group – that is until the graduates were ready for their first deployment. That’s when a high ranking female officer was brought in to talk to the graduating women. The officer began by passing out Q-Tips. The Q-Tip was meant to serve as a visual reminder that if they want to progress in their military career they would need to learn to Quit Taking It Personally.
Are you crushed by even constructive criticism? To some people criticism is so distressing they’ll do anything to avoid it… including never going after their dream. Not taking risks can be an unconscious way to avoid scrutiny and criticism. If you never put your screenplay, out you’ll never get rejected. If you never submit your resume, you’ll never be turned down. If you never open your little business, you’ll never have to hear people say “I told you so” if don’t succeed right out of the gate.
Never putting yourself out there does work… but at a price. Maybe you too had parents, teachers, coworkers, bosses, or audience members whose criticism whittled away at your confidence.” You can’t change the past. But you can do things differently in the present. You can either continue to let other people have power over how you see yourself, or you can reclaim your self-esteem right now. That’s what Williamson did. Today Williamson says he is “very thankful” to Mrs. Tingle. “It’s funny how that criticism can paralyze you and then it’ll just fuel you.”