No one enjoys being criticized! Yet, if you want to succeed, you’ve got to overcome all your natural instincts and actively seek out feedback, good and bad.
As a professional speaker, I know how it is. I face my critics every week. They’re called audiences. Not only do they rate me with their applause and laughter (or lack thereof), but frequently they’re asked to complete written evaluations, providing feedback for the meeting planners. I want those meeting planners to look like heroes, so I do everything possible to keep in top form. That means that I embrace and value criticism. I study those “evals” and listen to all comments, no matter how off the mark they may seem. And, even though I’ve been an executive speech coach and a professional speaker for decades, I still ask professional peers to be my toughest critics and give their feedback.
If you want to improve, you need to develop a positive, flexible, and creative attitude toward feedback. Here are eight practical ways to make criticism a positive and harness the power of feedback for your own success.
1. Diffuse attacks. To give yourself breathing room, turn “attacks” of criticism into information exchanges. The natural human reaction is to become defensive and offer a list of reasons why the comment is untrue. This quickly locks both sides into fixed adversarial positions from which it is hard to retreat. Break the cycle. As hard as it may be, respond to any negative criticism by immediately agreeing it may be correct. Then ask for more specific details, enlisting the accuser as your ally in improving the situation. You’ll get lots of useful feedback, both negative and positive.
2. Use the Olympic-scoring rule. Throughout your life, you’ll get a wide range of commentary on how you’re doing. Discard your highest and lowest ratings. Bill Gove, past president of the National Speakers Association said, “In any audience, ignore the ten percent who think you walk on water and the ten percent who think you are no good at all. Then listen to the middle eighty percent.”
3. Consider the source. Do your critics have the right background and experience to judge your work accurately? Are they in a position to give you valuable input? You can’t change to satisfy everyone. (“A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”) In my career, I’ve been given some really good advice and some really bad advice. The key is deciding which is which.
4. Separate intent from content. Any negative comments about our actions, appearance, or attitudes automatically seem very personal. Yet, amazingly, the commenter may have had the best intentions. Recognize that different people have different personality styles and communication skills. They may sincerely mean to help, but deliver negative comments in a way that is hard to process and accept. On the other hand, an ill-wisher often provides valuable insights. Decide that it is never productive to take any comments personally.
5. Seek out criticism. Some jobs offer regular job performance evaluations where employees get feedback. If you don’t have such a program, ask for personal feedback anyway, from both your manager and those you manage. One successful AT&T executive sits down on a regular basis with his staff and asks them, “What things am I doing well? What would like me to do more? What should I do less of or stop doing?”
Recruit your customers as allies by asking them to be your critics. Don’t be defensive. Keep your clients happy by being as eager to please them as your competitors are. In any selling situation, you’re still selling after the sale. It won’t be long before a rival asks them, “What do you want that your current supplier isn’t providing?” Get the jump by asking the same question. Seek out the criticism before your competitor does!
“When a customer offers a criticism,” advises Bob Treadway, a Denver based speaker, “invite them to be more specific.” For example, if they say, “This delivery should have come sooner!” ask them in a genuinely friendly tone, “How much sooner, specifically, would you like it?” If they say, “You could have done a better follow up,” say, “Tell me how exactly you’d like us to follow up in the future.”
Treadway advises asking open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no.” For example, “How could we help you with that?” or “What improvements would you like to see?” Then summarize what they have said: “It sounds like we could do a better job if…”
6. Feed back your feedback. Paraphrasing what you’ve just been told helps to eliminate misunderstandings, honoring and acknowledging the criticism, and compelling you to really listen. “Nothing,” Bob Treadway says, “demonstrates better to a client, boss or spouse that you have heard them than paraphrasing their statements.” It also helps you to filter out and focus on the useful information.
7. Protect yourself. We’re not always in shape to cope with negative comments. It’s appropriate to give people feedback on the best time and way to offer you feedback.
People learn to treat you the way you teach them to treat you. Dear Abby once ran a letter from a slender, attractive woman whose Mother never failed to remind her of how fat and unattractive she had been as a teenager. Dear Abby suggested that she say, “Mother, let’s not discuss that anymore.” So simple, yet so hard to withdraw permission after years of negativity.
It’s your job to communicate that you will respond better if you can receive the criticism in a different way, time, or place.
8. Don’t expect everyone to love you. Praise and approval are wonderful. We all thrive on them. But we all need a dose of reality now and then. Just because people notice imperfections and point them out doesn’t make them your enemies. If you’ve armed yourself with a positive attitude toward criticism, they are going to be your best friends.
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Make Feedback, Even Criticism, Work for You
Just a few more of the many complimentary resources on Fripp.com to help you improve your presentations:
- Expert Feedback to Improve Your Presentation Skills
- Practice Does Not Make Perfect – Are You Reinforcing Bad Habits?
- Can A Billionaire Give You Presentation Advice?
- Do You Know How to Evaluate Your Presentation Flow?
- Public Speaking – How to Recognize & Reject Unhelpful Feedback
Executive Speech Coach and Hall of Fame Keynote Speaker Patricia Fripp works with individuals and companies who realize that powerful, persuasive presentation skills give them a competitive edge.