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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Taking and Giving Criticism

Our perspective determines how we interpret things; and how we interpret things determines the impact we have on others and the impact they have on us.

What’s the difference between a critical comment that feels like a kick in the gut and the right of one person to set boundaries (via a critical comment) regarding what she will and will not allow to be said in her presence?

I once heard Maya Angelou telling a story about a party she hosted in her home. As people do at parties, the guests were mingling and chatting. Small groups had formed throughout the house and several mini conversations were taking place. Ms. Angelou overheard a comment said in one of the conversations several groups away from where she stood. I can’t remember what the actual comment was, but it was something that crossed one of Ms. Angelou’s personal boundaries. She immediately interjected, calling out over the crowd: “Not in my home!” She then asked the guest to leave.

I have always admired this story for several reasons:

  • There was no discussion: no explanation, no defense, no back pedaling. Ms. Angelou’s boundaries, based on her core values, are rock solid – no holes for “exceptions”.
  • It was a statement about herself; she never talked bad about the person, never put labels on him or her, and never made any implication that the speaker was in any way “wrong” or “bad”.
  • Ms. Angelou demonstrated the kind of authenticity I aim for in my own interactions with others. This story serves as a powerful and positive role model for me.

What would my interpretation of that story be, however, if I had heard the other person’s version? Unfair, perhaps, because he or she didn’t have the opportunity to explain the comment? Sympathy, perhaps, because Ms. Angelou “misunderstood”? I don’t know, but I do know that I believe that we all have a right, and ultimately, a responsibility, to call others out when things are said in our presence that hurt our feelings or offend our core values.

First of all, most of us never get the guts to stand up and defend our boundaries. Instead, we slither away silently until we are with like-minded comrades and then we join forces to bash both the comment(s) and the speaker.

But if we do ever speak out and say our own version of “Not in my home!” we are guaranteed an elaborate conversation that involves explanations, defenses, more personal stories, and most likely, more hurt feelings.

Should Ms. Angelou have called the speaker out privately instead of publically as she did? Both yes and no are valid answers:

Yes, privately would have been more appropriate:

Privately doing this would have protected the speaker’s embarrassment.

No, publically was more appropriate:

The issues of “absolute honesty” and “authenticity” were illuminated for everyone present. Personally, I think this is rather profound.

Whether you agree with Ms. Angelou’s “style” or not, the point I want to punctuate is that we do have the right to tell someone when their stories and examples are offensive to us, and equally valid, I believe we have a responsibility to do so. The problem, of course, is that such vulnerable honesty usually produces more hurt feelings and is certainly not what is intended, not by either person!

So I put myself in the place of the speaker. Ouch! Yes, I would probably first be embarrassed, second, angry, and third, frustrated and defensive because it would feel like my honesty has to be sacrificed for the sake of the honesty and/or feelings of the person calling me out. What makes the feelings of the “defender of boundaries” more important than my feelings?

How do we overcome this?

Criticisms hurt. Here is my suggestion: my challenge to you today is to consider criticisms you have received and to step back – not away, back – and look at the bigger picture. It is not really possible to be truly objective, but try. Step back, lick your wounds, and then take in the bird’s eye view of circumstances surrounding the criticism. Next, ask yourself: 1) what are my core values? 2) How can I honestly express myself regarding whatever the criticism was about within the limits of my own core values? and 3) how can I be both authentically me and respectful of others in my environment?

Maybe the speaker in Ms. Angelou’s home was not wrong (remember, Ms. Angelou never accused the speaker of being “wrong”), but because it is so easy to speak offensively without even realizing it, take the criticisms you receive as an opportunity to check your comments and be sure they are securely aligned with your core values and the absolute truth you believe in your heart. If you determine that the criticism was valid, simply adjust your speech so it better reflects who you are; if you determine that the criticism was not valid, then let it go and carry on.

Whatever it is worth, take this post today as an opportunity to do some internal reflection.

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