photo credit: henri meilhac

3 Lessons on Managing Criticism from Others

How to make the best decisions for yourself, despite what others say

Have you ever received criticism that you felt was unfair or downright spiteful? If so, here is an interesting Aesop’s fable:

A man and his son were once going with their donkey to market. As they were walking along by his side a countryman passed them and said, “You fools, what is a donkey for but to ride upon?” So the man put the boy on the donkey, and they went on their way.

But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said, “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.”

So the man ordered his boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other, “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”

Well, the man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his boy up before him on the donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passersby began to jeer and point at them. The man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at.

The men said, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey of yours — you and your hulking son?”

The man and boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, until at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them until they came to a bridge, when the donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the donkey fell over the bridge, and his forefeet being tied together, he was drowned.

The moral of the story is: Try to please everyone, and you will please no one.

It’s natural for us to try to win the approval of others, whether it means pursuing a respectable career, following our peers, or acting in certain ways.We crave social acceptance to reassure ourselves that we’re doing the right thing.

But whatever you decide to do, someone, somewhere will have an opinion about it. People might question your motives, your reasoning, or nitpick at the smallest details.

Sometimes, people can take an issue and blow it out of proportion. They take offense over something. They might even make personal remarks. For instance, when I wrote about Zara’s business strategy, one person was “offended” that my article assumed he didn’t know who the founder was (whether he read past the first two sentences of the article, I don’t know).

These criticisms can gradually chip away at you — but only if you let them.

Here are a few thoughts on dealing with criticism:

1. Recognize the source.

There’s a difference between receiving feedback from a stranger versus someone you know. An anonymous person might criticize because they don’t understand what you’re doing, or because it makes them feel better.

A familiar person who provides feedback, however, will usually speak out of concern for your well-being. Even if a friend offers advice that isn’t applicable or useful, the person is less likely to be critical simply for the sake of it. If the person has undergone similar experiences, it’s worth listening to the knowledge they have to share.

Regardless of where it’s from, we often take every piece of criticism we hear to heart. Even if you receive mostly positive feedback, all it takes is one single negative comment to raise doubt.

So ask yourself: Does the person have a stake in what I do? Are they genuinely concerned and knowledgeable, or merely someone with an opinion? Filter through the noise to find the signal.

2. Manage criticism accordingly.

You can try to convince the other person why they’re wrong. You can even show them the evidence behind your argument. But still, it won’t have any effect. Chances are that you’ll end up frustrated and tired.

Instead, I suggest not taking things too seriously. If someone criticizes you, you can thank the person for sharing their thoughts. You can even ask them to explain their perspective and see what have to say. Or if the person is a stranger, you can ignore them and keep moving.

When you do something that’s even slightly outside the norm, there will be enough challenges, fears, and doubts to deal with on your own. Don’t let every single piece of criticism or opinion get in your way.

3. Know that the issue usually has to do with them, not you.

Surprisingly, criticisms are often a reflection on the person who gives it. Maybe the person is having a bad day, struggling in an area that you excel in, or enjoys being contradictory in general. Maybe the person has chosen you as the target upon which to unleash their frustrations and emotions.

One time, someone working in customer service lashed out at me after I asked for help finding a book. I was confused and wondered why she seemed so hostile. Later, she apologized and confessed that she had been having a stressful day. In the end, we had an interesting chat about her work and future plans. While she was a nice person, she happened to have a bad day when I was nearby.

Focus on the Road Ahead

Imagine racing on a road. Spectators watch as you pass by. Some cheer you on, some stay silent, and a few may jeer. When the next person comes along, the spectators will do the same thing.

People watch what you do for only a fraction of their time. Like in the fable, the bystanders who criticize you don’t face any of the consequences of their words. Ultimately, you are the one who must deal with the end results.

So decide: Will you keep moving, or will you stop and listen to everything everyone has to say?

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