We’ve all been there. You’ve spent ages planning and executing a project, only for someone to tell you about a minute detail you’ve missed. Or they tell you ways they would do it differently. But, you can turn negative comments into a learning and development experience. Here’s how.
Negative comments: the first bite
Quite often, our first instinct is to react emotively. Who can blame us for reacting the way we do? After all, we spend precious hours away from our families, only to have the work we do, criticised. It’s only natural to want to defend ourselves, but we shouldn’t bottle things up. And there could actually be a remedy.
If we receive negative comments about the work we have done, it can surprise us. It is normal for someone to take pride in their work. You wouldn’t expect someone to give you negative comments about something you are proud of. This is often the reason why we are stimulated into an emotional response.
What psychologists have to say
Psychologist William Swann, said when humans receive negative comments, this conflicts with our self-image. He said: “we suffer the same severe disorientation and psychological anarchy that occurs when we recognise that our very existence is threatened.” In other words, Swann acknowledges that our emotional response is a defence of our self-worth – and quite right too.
Psychologist and author, Steven Stosny PhD, recognises this in his own study. He said the reason why we respond to negative comments in the way we do, is because it embodies two things that human beings hate the most – submission and devaluation. Again, when we are confronted by things that our personalities exist to repel, we revert to the emotional response by default.
Even though it is difficult, it is preferable to try and rationalise your thoughts before responding to negative comments. You shouldn’t always perceive them as a bad thing either. As the great Oscar Wilde once said, there is no better form of autobiography than criticism.
Indeed, Stosny himself stated as part of his study that criticism can just be a statement of fact and is only destructive to relationships when it is about personality. The personality bit is important, because he specifically separates out behaviour, although he does say that criticism is also destructive when it is belittling.
However, there are studies to show why there’s good reason to consider how you respond to negative comments. One such comment was from organisational psychologist, Tasha Eurich. She carried out a study of individuals who’d made dramatic improvements in their self-awareness. She wanted to see if using negative comments could actually help them to improve.
Her conclusions found a clear pattern, the deeper she dug in.
She said: “Where so many of us pressure ourselves to push past our emotions and respond right away, these highly self-aware people gave themselves days or even weeks to bounce back from difficult feedback before deciding what to do next.”
Specifically, many reported actively working to change the way they saw negative comments. They’d think of upsetting or surprising information as helpful and productive data — something psychologists call cognitive reappraisal.
Tasha recognises in a lot of her work, that knowing how others see us is the key to happiness. So if someone responds to us negatively, it can have a deeper impact on the psyche. However, this goes against any instructions to “know thyself” and we still obsess over what others think of us.
Who’s to say that knowing yourself, or getting to know oneself, doesn’t rely on other methods? Yes, we like to hear positive rewards, but can we actually reap better rewards from negative comments?
Another of Tasha’s studies shows that whilst 95% of people think they are self-aware, the real figure is closer to 10-15%. The reason being, that we are terrible judges of our own performances and abilities. Sometimes, we just need someone to tell us when we are not performing.
Here’s how to take negative criticism and use it to help you grow
When you hear: “I don’t like your writing style”.
You should hear instead: “I have a different writing style” OR “I have a different writing style in mind“.
What you should say: “Did you have a different writing style in mind?”
When you hear: “All these new designs are rubbish.”
What you should hear instead: This could be a number of things. Are they displaying irritation at not being consulted during the design process? Could you have made a better job of defining designs with different imagery or colour schemes?
What you should say: “Shall we fix up a time to discuss them in more detail?”
High performers are often high performers for the very reason they are good at accepting feedback and using it as fuel for personal growth. This is obvious from the way organisations throw loads of money at 360-degree feedback schemes for employees.
Negative comments are a part of life. Ironically, you are more likely to be judged on the success of how you positively deal with those negative comments, than you are by the situation itself.