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November 19, 2012 / alipeles

3. Never rebut criticism

  • Criticism is data that helps you improve
  • Giving criticism is difficult. Be grateful to those who make the effort
  • If you’re arguing, even in your head, then you’re not listening

If you want to be better, better at anything, then you want people to criticize you. Really criticize you; no punches pulled tell-you-what-you-stink-at criticize you. It’s tough to hear. It stings. But, sincere critique is one of the most valuable gifts you can receive from a manager, a peer, a colleague, a friend, or a partner. It’s information that you can act on to be better at what you do.

Remember that criticism is tough to deliver. Nobody sane ever gets excited to tell people that they messed up. Openly and candidly confronting people with their faults requires a strong will. Most people go weak, avoiding, postponing, or watering down the message. Those who give clear feedback without hesitation have made a great effort in training themselves to do so.

Given how valuable criticism can be and how unpleasant to communicate, we are remarkably ungrateful when we receive it. Our gut reaction, the one almost everyone has almost every time, is defense. We argue with the critic, try to convince her that she misinterpreted, has only half the story, isn’t being fair, focused too much on one incident, or has a bias. I.e. we skip the part where we figure out whether the criticism is true and go right to arguing that it’s not.

Who ever says, “Thank you! I didn’t realize that I usurp authority and can’t keep meetings on track. I’m so glad that you were kind enough to tell me.”?

If a remotely sane person, even one who dislikes you and has an ulterior motive or dark agenda, gives you direct criticism then: it wasn’t easy for that person and you’ve just received valuable data.

So, LISTEN! Clarify. Ask questions. Ask for specific examples. Stay calm. Speak slowly and softly. Reiterate the criticism to make sure you’ve got it. Try to rephrase it and make the case for the criticism even stronger than the critic made it. Come up with your own examples that support the criticism.

Don’t argue. Don’t construct rebuttals in your head. If you’re arguing, you’re not listening.

If someone’s criticism surprises you, then you probably don’t believe it. Try to believe it. You might fail, but it’s the only way to give the idea a fair shake. Criticism that surprises you is the most valuable. By definition, it’s stuff that you had missed.

Keep in mind that criticism reveals how you’re perceived. The perception may be spot on, completely off the mark, or somewhere in between. But, unless the critic is lying, the existence of the perception is a fact. You want and need to figure out why.

Above all, THANK your critic. It was hard to tell you this stuff. You want the critic to know that you appreciate it. You want this to happen again.


Leave a Comment
  1. Ben Ross / Nov 19 2012 12:59 pm

    That was incredibly pithy and valuable feedback. Sounds a lot like what the Bridgewater Associates/Ray Dalio manifesto is, except I am not sure they truly follow it. I think anyone who strives for greatness MUST follow that advice.

  2. alipeles / Nov 19 2012 2:25 pm

    Thanks Ben! And I agree. Very interesting stuff coming out of Bridgewater. I have no inside knowledge of what actually goes on over there, but I figure that just having a “radical openness” policy and prominently displaying it (–principles.aspx) on the company website put them well ahead of most firms.

    Instead of just promoting openness as a best practice they make it a key part of their identity. At the very least, everybody who works for Bridgewater knows that mature exchange of feedback is expected.


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