Of Critics and Criticism

Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking Column • For July18th weekender, 2015


Of Critics and Criticism

David W. Hegg


We all receive criticism. Maybe it’s the driver behind you or your kids who never miss a chance to let you know just how lame you are. Maybe it’s your boss or your customers who are complaining about your work or customer service. Maybe it’s your spouse, or your neighbor, or even a close friend who gets frustrated and goes off on you. Maybe it’s someone who starts complaining about your company or your town or something else that you've poured your heart into. Maybe the criticism is aimed at someone you love and respect, or even as some ideology or platform you support. No matter the package it comes in, we all are on the receiving end of criticism, and understand that critics are all around us just waiting for the chance to show how wrong we are, and how much better we'd be if we adopted their view of things.


So what are we to do? Here are some suggestions, and feel free to criticize them:


#1: Consider the comment before considering the source.

By this I mean that in every criticism there may be some truth that needs to be heard and learned. Even if it comes from a recalcitrant, closed-minded, ignorant, venomous, and well-known enemy, there still might be some truth to it.  I can't let "commitment bias" keep me from benefitting from what truth there may be in the criticism. And I can't let the fact that the critic is an idiot keep me from finding whatever necessary truth there may be in the criticism.


 #2: Most critics just want to be heard.

Most critics just want to express themselves, and know that they've been heard and that their thoughts have been honorably considered. Realize you don’t have to respond immediately. Usually the best response is not defense, or argument, but a simple “thanks for letting me know how you’re feeling. It means a lot to me, and I’ll think about this and get back to you.”


#3: Criticism from your friends is actually a compliment to your friendship.

None of us goes through life without the need for helpful correction. Be glad you have friends who care enough to help you see things differently.


#4: It almost never works to use email to respond to criticism.

I've learned the hard way that email is too quick, too prone to misinterpretation, and too easily a tool for anger and strident reprisal to be useful in dealing with critics. I do use email in dealing with ongoing critics, those I know and who know me, and with whom I have a relationship. But I have found that initially, email can be like pouring gas on a fire.


#5: Where change is needed, make it; where it’s not, flush the criticism.

I’ve learned to take a week to carefully consider the criticism, and make needed changes. If I move too quickly, I may act rashly, but if I delay too long, it burrows into my mind and becomes a greater problem than at first because I keep ruminating on it. So, my ideal is to take a couple days (if warranted), sift out whatever helpful insights are in the criticism, devise a plan to deal with the critic, and then carry out the plan. Life is too short to be burdened with bags and bags of unresolved criticism.


#7: Be intentional about becoming a better critic yourself.


As public figure, I know how hurtful, debilitating, frustrating, discouraging, and downright overwhelming criticism can be.  That means I ought to be the best kind of critic. I ought to pick only those spots where my criticism can bring the most benefit. And I ought to be the guy whose criticism lands with the best hope of being understood and welcomed, and not like a knife in the back.


So, there you go. We all get criticized, and we all hate it. But, to the extent that we can manage it, and gain from it, just maybe we can turn criticism and critics into stepping-stones on the path to improvement.