Criticism. What is it Good for?

I was recently on a car ride with my boss. As a decision-maker for the company, she tends to ask me for my opinion on matters that I feel are far above my pay grade, but that’s what makes her such a great leader. She treats everyone as equals and makes even the daily do-ers feel important. She asked for my opinion on people giving feedback and for one of the first times I had plenty of thoughts.

The company I work for regularly speaks about openly giving feedback, having uncomfortable conversations, and talking to the people directly that you’re having an issue with. A “radical” notion that’s simple but not easy. It’s the way an adult should function. Someone gives you a piece of feedback/perspective that you may have not considered before, you listen, say “thank you,” then go back and reflect on what part of that feedback would be helpful to implement for the next version of your action. Simple on paper, not easy in execution. Those pesky emotions get in the way.

Sometimes the person providing the feedback isn’t very well versed in how to provide perspective tactfully or in a helpful manner. Sometimes they can’t articulate what they’re trying to convey. Other times they deliver their criticism delightfully and it still stings. What do we do? Being with a company that values honest feedback, I’ve had to lean on greater minds to learn how to receive criticism. Thankfully, some great people left their thoughts written down to make my life easier. Here are some thoughts and words that I always refer to when I’m feeling the sting of someone’s opinion.

Receiving feedback and criticism

Whenever somebody wrongs you, ask yourself at once ‘What conception of good and evil led him to commit such a wrong?’ And when you see that, you will pity him, and feel neither surprise nor anger.

— Marcus AureliusMeditations

Seeing someone else’s perspective has been key in helping me receive feedback. I was once given the analogy that perspective helps us grow because it’s like looking at a beach ball. If four people are looking at the same beach ball, they will each see a different stripe of color while looking at the exact same object. So when someone provides me feedback, I always think of the beach ball. “Okay, we’re looking at the same thing, but they’re standing on the other side. They aren’t purposely trying to hurt me, they’re trying to explain to me what their side of the ball looks like.”

As Marcus Aurelius stated, once we’re able to understand where the critic’s words are coming from you no longer feel shame, anger or surprise. You understand. You can then take those opinions and learn from them, take what is useful, and discard what is useless.

For it is easy to criticize and break down the spirit of others, but to know yourself takes a lifetime.

 Bruce LeeStriking Thoughts

Bruce Lee, while traditionally not thought of as a Stoic, is someone who has helped provide a fair amount of perspective in my life. Language is a wonderful thing, and the interpretation of it is part of the beauty of the linguistic arts. Whenever I hear any or part of the following statements, “can I give you some feedback, “ I think you…,” “what if you…,” or “I have some thoughts on what you just did/said,” I think of these words from Bruce. I never make the assumption that the person providing me their perspective is doing so out of malice so I take the words in stride. It’s very simple to provide feedback on what you believe to be true, all while knowing you don’t intend to tear anyone down. As the receiver, I take this time to get to know myself better. What about the words they chose to use made that piece of criticism sting? Where did my ego decide to show up? What portions of their opinion did I scoff at? Did I roll my eyes at any point? All of these questions and reflections help me on the road of knowing myself just a little better. So while Bruce may have meant that others may choose to criticize with impunity, I like to think of it as a time to learn and grow.

Acquire the habit of attending carefully to what is being said by another, and to entering, as far as possible, into the mind of the speaker.

— Marcus AureliusMeditations

This is another version of the same idea. The adage of “walking a mile in someone’s shoes before you judge them” dates back to 170~ AD. It’s not a new concept, but again, a concept that is simple on paper but not easy to execute. How much of your ego can you let go of to truly see where the other person is coming from? Can you enter into the feedback session with the willingness to be wrong? Can you listen with an open mind and accept that your view of the beach ball might not be the only one?

Giving feedback and criticism.

…not to be over-critical; and not to interrupt and correct those who have employed a solecism or some outlandish or discordant expression, but rather to suggest adroitly the expression which ought to have been used while professing to offer a reply or some further confirmation, or to join in a debate on the matter itself rather than the diction, or to use some other tactful procedure to suggest the right expression in an indirection fashion.

— Marcus AureliusMeditations

Now, while this is quite wordy and offers several pieces of wisdom, it’s one of the first things I learned about giving feedback. We have to be willing to let go of our ego and the desire to be “right.” Let’s not forget, we’re giving our opinion on a topic, and opinions are subject to change and subject to perspective. Instead of heading into a conversation with the idea that you need to show the other person they are wrong, share your opinion with tact. While this quote specifically refers to grammatical issues, it can be applied to all aspects of life. Stick to your point and don’t drag in secondary and tertiary arguments that only help to prove your “superiority.” The other person is there and willing to listen to your opinion, why be pompous about it?

…not to be led astray into a passion for rhetoric…or deliver little moralizing sermons, or play the ascetic or the benefactor in a manner calculated to impress; to abstain from oratory, and verse and fine language…and not to be satisfied with a superficial impression; not to agree too quickly with those who talk with a fluent tongue…

— Marcus AureliusMeditations 1:7

I’ve notated which passage this is from so you can go directly to it if you happen to already own or decide to pick up a copy of Meditations. While much longer, these are the points that have really stuck in my mind. The most poignant part, to me, is the portion stating not to agree too quickly with those who talk with a fluent tongue. There is a fine line to balance between trying to be tactful and direct. It is easy to fall to the side of flowery speech because we are trying to spare the other person’s feelings. Because of this, I remind myself of this passage when going into a session where I am providing news that may be hard to hear. I don’t want to be so well spoken that my message gets lost, but I also want to be tactful enough that I’m not just putting someone’s feelings aside for the sake of sharing my opinion.

Giving feedback is hard, receiving feedback is harder. There are many facets to the art, but a key point is to remember you are listening to someone’s opinion, not a fact about you. They’re just trying to describe the other side of the beach ball to you. When you reframe criticism and feedback as perspective and opinion, we open ourselves to growth.

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