How To Love Criticism: A Criticism

There’s a dude called Adam Grant, and he’s got me thinking about criticism. How to dish it, how to take it, and how to love it.

This is not Adam Grant

Adam Grant is like the love child of TED and NPR. His podcast explores how to make work better, and he uses his background in organizational psychology to deep dive into the topics that most impact our work lives (hence the name of the podcast). Basically, his job is to fix other people’s jobs.

I listened to the podcast’s debut episode on Spotify, intriguingly titled How to love criticism, and have some criticism of my own.

How to dish out feedback, especially negative

In one of his interviews, Adam brings up the feedback sandwich, also lovingly known as a shit sandwich. This is when you sandwich your criticism between two slices of praise in an effort to minimize the blow.

Obviously, nobody wants a shit sandwich. When we get one, we either disregard the praise slices because they seem disingenuous or we tune out the criticism like it’s the forgotten middle child, Jan Brady.

But usually we have both positive and negative feedback to share.

So, I’ve created my own tasty treat metaphor to replace the feedback sandwich. I call it the sampler feedback platter.

When we’re discussing a project’s status or sharing decisions that we’ve made, we usually have more than 1–3 bullet points to make. A natural conversation comprises of many different ideas and arguments, most of which overlap with one another.

There’s no need to layer negative feedback between positive feedback during a productive chat, because you’re just being humans exchanging thoughts. Instead, just throw your thoughts altogether on a platter like sampler appetizer dish. Everyone can go round–robin and grab a bite, then trade sauces.

Ultimately, not everyone likes every kind of appetizer (even Homer Simpson hates oatmeal) just as not everyone will take kindly to every thought we share.

If we know going in that our goal is shared by everyone in the conversation, we’re far more likely to take their criticism as a way to improve the project or ourselves, rather than an attack on our person.

So, start these conversations by stating your intentions and goals, much like you’d start a meal (especially a sampler appetizer platter) with saying grace. You may not be thanking anyone for the tasty food you’re about to eat, but you will be avoiding future table flips.

How to take criticism, even when you don’t ask for it

One of the hardest times to take criticism is when it’s unwarranted.

There’s no worse feeling than being sidelined with a hey, that really sucked out of the blue, even when it’s phrased kindly with thoughtful suggestions on how to improve.

We’re all prone to either get butt-hurt and extract ourselves from the conversation asap, or get defensive and fire back with our own criticisms.

Of course, these reactions don’t actually do anyone any favors.

I’ve taken a new approach with clients who give me negative feedback on a work project and loved ones who point out an error or question why I’m doing this or that. I prepare to give them feedback on their feedback.

This changes my internal thought process from strictly feelings(butt hurt, defensive, etc.) to curiosity. I need to understand their feedback and where it’s coming from, so I can provide a critique, myself. I naturally transition into asking questions like:

  • When did you first notice that?
  • What did you expect to have happened?
  • What would you have done differently?

These types of questions shift the focus of the conversation away from me, which feels invasive and leaves me exposed, vulnerable. The focus is now on the action itself and the criticism giver’s perception of it.

This helps me to understand their point of view, but also gives me time to progress from the proving stage to the improving stage, something Adam talks quite a bit about.

How to love and crave criticism

The proving stage is all ego, a base-level version of ourselves that gets defensive and butt-hurt at criticism. Naturally, we don’t like hearing negative things about ourselves, so we respond by trying to prove the other person wrong or explain away our choices in the hopes that they’ll be seen in a more positive light.

We think we’re protecting ourselves, but in reality, safety is the death of self-improvement.

The improving stage is a higher level, where we reflect on choices (especially the bad ones) and develop solutions to avoid or correct those situations in the future.

In theory, if you train yourself to reduce the time it takes to transition from the natural proving stage to the cognitive improving stage, you can start to crave criticism.

This is the journey that I’m on. I don’t think that I can ever avoid the pain of criticism entirely, (until I reach demigod status, that is) but I can associate that pain with self-improvement.

This simply comes down to conditioning ourselves in order to hard-wire the reflexes and responses we wish we were born with.

Take Pavlov’s dog: dog hears bell, dog salivates, right? Well, same thing: human receives criticism, human enters improving mode.

The key here is that you have to actually want to improve, more so than you want to avoid pain or discomfort.

This seems rather obvious, but I have found this to be surprisingly rare. I think it’s because we are hard-wired to seek comfort and safety, and this extends to feeling good about ourselves.

We have to be willing to accept that someone is offering advice because they, too, want us to improve. And this requires that we put down the defenses that are screaming this dude is totally trying to put one over, beware!

In order to self-improve, we must first be vulnerable and experience pain. Only then can we accept criticism as the hard truths we’ve been unwilling or unable to face.

Once we can do that, we’ll crave criticism, because we’ll have conditioned ourselves to associate criticism with the positive benefits of self-improving.