Criticism: How To Give It, And How To Receive It

A man sits with his head in his hand as a woman indicates to his computer screen. sugests an inability to handle criticism

Nobody likes being criticised, but how you handle it makes all the world of difference. Here are my stories.

Not so long ago, my husband and I visited a restaurant and then reviewed our experience following our visit. As was standard procedure at that time, I wrote two reviews – one for my blog, and a shorter summary that I posted on TripAdvisor – no big deal.

Now, experiences at the establishment weren’t exactly stellar. As a reviewer, I can only be honest and say what I did and didn’t enjoy and that’s all I ever set out to do.

So when I saw the incredibly hostile response from the manager, I was quite surprised.

Most managers that I have reviewed have taken any criticism on the chin, taken my pointers on board and gone back to work unscathed. Not this guy. According to him, I imagined dishes and I was “hard to please”. He pretty much chewed me out for being among an apparent 5% of people who weren’t satisfied with how his pub operates.

Yeesh, now it’s personal.

Luckily for him, it took my husband and a few deep breaths to stop me bouncing onto my laptop and bashing out exactly what I thought of him. It wouldn’t have resolved the issue, but I would have definitely felt more relieved.

But then it struck me, his excessive use of (sometimes multiple) exclamation marks struck a chord and I finally understood. This wasn’t about me, this was about him. Him, and the way he handled criticism.

Badly.

Let me be honest, there are two British celebrities that really resonate with me. Heck, I’d even go as far as to say that they inspire me.

Simon Cowell, and Gordon Ramsay.

Not exactly ‘nice’ guys. Agreed?

But you see, once you get past that tough cookie exterior, they are among some of the nicest, most thoughtful, most genuine people you could ever meet, and I’m pretty much the same.

I can be a complete bitch a times, but I’m only a complete bitch if I need to be because I want to see you win and I want to see you succeed. I’m not going to sugarcoat things. If I’m leading you, I want to see you reach your potential, just like Simon Cowell and Chef Ramsay.

Two Times That I Was Criticised

Make no mistake, I am human, and as a human, it means that I too am fair game for critique. If you want to criticise what I do and you have a good reason to, feel free! In fact, I welcome your criticism because it allows mo to shape the way I do things and make my blog better for you. So please, go ahead and criticise me!

Story 1: My Writing Club Story

When I joined my local writing club, I was really hopeful to make lots of fellow writer friends. There were five of us; three elderly ladies, one younger girl and me. One of the older ladies was the group leader, and she sort of decided what we were going to do, or what we would write about each day.

Very early in, I realised that we all had very different writing styles. The young girl liked to write about growing up in Africa, two of the ladies wrote poetry, the leader lady wrote prose, and then there was me – who wrote pieces aimed to assist, guide and inspire. Real-life stuff.

For whatever reason, the leader lady gave us all ‘homework’ to do at the end of the session. By the following week, we all had to have written a piece of prose about someone we knew, without saying who that person was.

So, I decided to write a piece about my neighbour.

It wasn’t exactly a particularly nice piece, sure, but I wanted to convey the emotion that I felt. I wanted to convey the irritation that I felt to him for the way that he would stand in front of me and lie so frequently and so prolifically. I had some strong emotions about him, and I took that chance to get them out.

She hated it.

It wasn’t prose at all, she said. But the emotion was there. My detest for my neighbour was apparent.

So, then, even if it wasn’t prose, surely it was still something? I didn’t care that it wasn’t prose, it was still a piece of written art to me!

Each person in the group was told how bad their work was. They were each, in turn, criticised for the work that they produced. Even the poets who struggled the least with the task were told how they could improve. At that point, I realised that nothing short of perfect prose would be good enough and I decided to disregard her feedback. I don’t write in poetic styles anyway, so that was fine for me.

Although I’ve never been back, my reaction to the criticism was to calmly and quietly leave the group at the end of the session and vow never to return. I didn’t attack her, I didn’t berate her and I didn’t shut down to everyone else. I just decided it wasn’t the right place for my style of writing, and left. After all, if I wanted to join a writing critique group, I would.

The last that I heard, the leader lady has now left and the group is now led by someone else. Of what I’ve heard, they’re also doing quite well producing articles for our monthly local newspaper, so more kudos to them.

Story 2: A Bad Joke

Sat on the seafront in Northern Cornwall, my brother pointed out the sun and said that the sun was in the sky. Amused by his pointing out the obvious, I made a bad attempt at trying to be funny.

“Is that what it is? I thought it was a giant ball of fire.”

I know, I know, it was painful.

“Well yeah, that’s exactly what it is” he said bluntly.

Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. Awkward.

“I’m sorry sis, but if that was what you call humour then… wow.”

Wow yourself!

I was deeply aggrieved and possibly rightly offended. He didn’t just criticise my (admittedly terrible) joke, he criticised me. On that occasion, I was so angry that I had to take myself for a walk to cool down, and I spent most of the next hour hardly talking to him, to boot.

Criticism: How To Take It, How To Give It

In life, anything we can do can be criticised. For as long as we can form opinions, and our opinion isn’t a favourable view, then we’re likely to dish out some form of criticism. That’s just what we humans do.

The difference, though, is in how you do it.

If, like the writing group leader lady, you just criticise what someone did, then that’s fine and fair. You aren’t judging them, you are judging something they said or did. If you criticise someone for something about who they are (like my brother did), then you’re likely to lose some friends.

Helpful VS Unhelpful Criticism

The biggest difference between helpful criticism and unhelpful criticism, is how you give it, and the intent.

When I criticised the pub, I was not criticising the pub nor the manager, I was criticising my experience in his establishment. The pub itself was nice and I’m sure the manager is decent too. It wasn’t about hurting him, but it was about allowing potential future customers to make a decision based on the collective reviews, including my own. With the writing lady, she criticised everyone in the group and as such, her criticism was quite clearly about her, rather than me.

Regardless of whether you regard criticism as helpful or unhelpful, it is important not to disregard it completely. Sometimes we ignore the criticism that we are given, only to realise much later that it contained a very important message.

Most people do not set out to belittle you, nor do they set out to offend or upset you and it is important to try and see it that way. Criticism is not meant as a personal attack against you, but as negative feedback on the thing you did. 

When we get criticised, it’s easy to overreact and lash out. Try not to let that be the case. Overreacting to criticism does nothing to preserve your credibility and is likely to make people refuse to give you their opinion again. Instead, smile and say thank you, then decide exactly how you’re going to handle it.

Avoiding The Sh*t Sandwich

One of the worst criticism technques is referred to as the “compliment sandwich”, or more commonly, the “sh*t sandwich”. If you’re unfamiliar, then the sh*t sandwich means giving someone a compliment, followed by a criticism, and then another compliment so as not to finish on a bad note. Most people know the “Shit Sandwich” technique though, and most people will be all too ready for what follows the “bread”. Instead, consider your delivery, and opt for some empathetic honesty. Unless essential, offer constructive feedback, rather than outright criticism. Most people will be much happier to receive pointers on how they cam improve for next time. 

Over to you! Have you ever been criticised? Hpw do you handle criticism? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments!

Until next time!

Stay safe & have fun, 

Helen xx

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