Constructive Criticism

” Jen, can I talk to you for a second?” No words make my heart sink faster than when someone rhetorically poses that loaded question. I instantly respond with, “Am I in trouble?” Usually this question stays safely in my head. I feel vulnerable. What did I do wrong and what do I need to do fix it? Will my gaffe sever or impair the relationship? Why did I not consider that they might be offended by ___________. Even when people use the “sandwich technique” of compliment, criticism, compliment what do I focus on? As an HSP, I’m quick to gloss over the compliments and fixate on the offense. And while I know it’s not just me AND that it may be getting not a little out of hand in society at large, I need to focus on what I can do to brighten my little corner of the world.

As Americans, we have gotten to where we are so easily offended that it is difficult to receive criticism that may, in fact, be warranted and dare I suggest beneficial to us. I’m not talking about the petty, “Mom! Why is there a bone in my homemade chicken noodle soup!” To which I am likely to give a less than gracious response coupled with a dirty look. No, I’m referring to things like, “Jen, I noticed you get defensive whenever I approach you about your Amazon spending habits.” (Many things could have been substituted but I may or may not have a slight book addiction.) So what is one to do when everyone is so touchy that we can’t offer any suggestions for improvement? Well, we can start by remembering a few essentials…

Words are important. The Bible has much to say about our words. Namely, keep it short and sweet (Eccles. 5:20), be quick to listen–slow to speak (James 1:19), our words are life or death therefore we should choose wisely (Proverbs 12:18) and so it goes on and on. But are we listening? We all seem so desperate to be heard, understood and affirmed that I’m afraid we’re missing out on what is most important: esteeming others better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3-5).

Facial Expressions and body language are equally important. I often don’t have to say a word, my face says it all. I maybe be quiet and a bit too direct but it’s hard to mistake the suppressed eye roll or the sigh of exasperation–the arms folded across my chest or the refusal to meet someone’s eyes. If I want to grow, I must be willing to learn from those who offer suggestions, if they have invested sufficient emotional capital with me to speak into my life. Open the hands, relax the shoulders and breathe…likely it’s not really as bad I imagine it will be. Approach it with curiosity…

If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out. As a child, this oft quoted witticism meant little to me. But as an adult I appreciate that people will not be nearly inclined to hear your constructive comments if you are less than willing to have the favor returned. Does that mean we shouldn’t correct others in a loving spirit? I don’t think so. I think it just means we all err and we all need to be willing to realize that often it is hardest to see our our faults. We tend to give much grace to ourselves and reserve judgement for others. After all we know our own intentions better than anyone, don’t we? (wink, wink.)

In the book Sensitive and Strong (Hughes and Gregory), which is a book about the inborn trait of high-sensitivity, Chapter 12 which deals with hearing and accepting criticism. Now I would wager that all of us, sensitive and non-sensitive have wrestled with having a flaw pointed out. Sometimes it is a genuine flaw and sometimes a wrongly perceived one. Hughes talks about a mistake she made whilst monitoring the school library to ensure that only one grade came in at a time. A particularly small fifth-grader desired admittance and because of her size, the teacher thought she was being disingenuous. The parent’s overreaction to the “offense” resulted in a very unkind letter. It appears as though the mother was a chronic complainer who may have been more offended at a teacher’s mistake than the child who was slighted. (Ahem…wish I could say I’ve never been that kind of mother…) However, Hughes took the letter to the Lord and sought ways she could develop herself as a person, and blow away the chaff of an offended parent.

Hughes had to make the decision of how to handle this less-than- gracious written confrontation and in this personal anecdote, she tries to teach us to do the same. She viewed this unpleasant episode as an opportunity for growth and we, by the grace of God, can do the same. Her first tip is, indeed, to consider the source. Is the offended someone who knows you well and cares about you or is it merely an anonymous rant? The author advocates ignoring the latter altogether–they have no power to speak into your life and you have no idea what motive or scenario prompted their words. If someone has something worthwhile to say, it is best that you know who they are. It is easy today to be cowardly behind our screens and say things we would never say in person.

Speaking of personal appearances, Hughes is a big advocate of criticizing in person whenever possible. I’m not sure about this one. I’m pondering the implications. I see the purpose behind the advice–often, in written communication, it can be difficult to accurately convey the tone of whatever is being said. However, as an HSP, I don’t tend to think well on my feet and my emotions tend to get the best of me. As a slow-processor, I do better in writing. It gives me time to be thoughtful and choose my words carefully. Perhaps I can do this in advance, as preparation for the in-person confrontation, and then take my thoughts to the offended and offer them in a humble spirit. Hughes suggests that if the criticizer does not confront you in person, or with your preferred method of confrontation, you should request that in future they do so in order that you will be able to give heed to their words without the distraction of an unpleasant delivery method.

After you have determined that the person is someone who has authority in your life, Hughes submits that you should :

say a quick prayer for eyes and ears open to the truth

listen without interrupting

take notes

clarify what you have heard

ask for examples

invite ideas for solutions

express genuine thanks

ask for time to process and meet at a later time as a follow up

Okay, so while these suggestions sound fabulous, in theory, it doesn’t sound realistic at all. At least not from the confrontations I’ve encountered. In fact, perhaps she’s not talking about marital conflict but I know from my experience when I ask my husband for examples or invite ideas for solutions in the heat of the moment, I don’t generally get much feedback as he can’t think of things in the heat of the moment. It’s not like he has a log where he’s keeping track. In fact, my husband and I seldom argue, but after nearly thirty-three years of marriage, I wish we could handle things this well. I sincerely desire that I could both give and request feedback in this manner. I’m not honestly sure where to start. If the criticism were coming from a friend or colleague this may come easier, but the one person in life who is most important to me deserves more than me spouting off when I finally decide to stop “stuffing.”

But hearing the criticism is just step one. The next step is evaluating what has been said. Praying for guidance about which things you need to hear and which you can set aside, how you can accept the criticism and show grace to the one who brought it to your doorstep. Hughes suggests making sure your physical needs are met before trying to do this: Are you hungry, stressed, tired? Not the time to deal with accusations, no matter how lovingly they are presented. Take care of your physical needs and then proceed–not forgetting to show grace to yourself, as well. The next step is to sort the helpful from the not helpful. Did the person give you any suggestions to improve? Can you add to them your own possible solutions? Come up with your best proposal for solving the problem. Set aside any unkind words that were said: focus on the reason you were confronted.

Finally, try to see the bigger picture–can something good come from this uncomfortable moment? Can your relationship with the criticizer be strengthened because they dared to approach you with an offense? Will your response be “a catalyst for something amazing in the future”? (Hughes and Gregory, p. 129)

Then Hughes suggests responding to the criticism/criticizer…own what is yours to own, develop a plan to change what you need to change, and then apologize if necessary (in person, whenever possible). Be sure to thank them for approaching you in your preferred manner if they have and if they haven’t, this is a good time to request a new method in future. This sounds a lot like an extension of the processing part above. It sounds rather stuffy and formal and I’m not sure that, except for an appropriately apology, it is very necessary. Again I am processing all this myself so I may change my mind. But this seems almost like dragging it out. I have questions: What if the plan you formulate to change whatever you deem necessary doesn’t work flawlessly? We are sinful creatures of habit…and change can sometimes come hard.

When Hughes confronted the parent that maligned her, in person, the mother refused to acknowledge her, much less engage. This is not unrealistic. It does happen. People refuse to accept apologies, nursing their wounds and playing the victim. In the age of social media, it is especially prevalent that people air their grievances with all their “friends” which is very immature and inappropriate. Sometimes giving the person time helps, sometimes it just exacerbates the problem, but we can only do what we can do and then the ball is in their court. Forgiveness is not really an option, but should they choose to live in bitterness, than they have much bigger problems than you. We need to forgive them, and move on. Easy to say, I know. But living in the past never helped anyone and you simply can’t be responsible for someone else’s choices.

As believers, we can pray for the one holding the grudge, set the example and move forward with the rest of our life. We are all human. We all mess up. For me, personally, the hardest person to forgive is myself. But I’m working on it…knowing if my Heavenly Father can forgive me, I would be wise to imitate Him, learn from my latest faux pas and press on toward the prize. Paul says, in modern paraphrase, that our weakness is our super-power. Rest assured, we will mess up plenty–say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, think the wrong thing– but our Rock, our Fortress is quick to come to the rescue. He knows our motives. He knows our names. And He is mighty, o so mighty to save us from ourselves. And for that, I am forever grateful.

Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?

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