Rome visit, June 2008 by Ed YourdonI’ve been having this conversation with my mother for years:

Mom, shaking her head: You are too sensitive to criticism.

Me: How can I be too sensitive for the very action I’m constantly encountering?!

Mom: See? You just proved my point.

Me: ….?

This may be a humorous snapshot of my relationship with my mother, but it’s also a classic example of how we view ourselves (and others) when it comes to giving and receiving criticism. Very few people readily admit they don’t take criticism well. But more importantly, no one thinks they deliver criticism badly or make it difficult for others to receive it well.

The sad reality is we tend to blame the other person for not interpreting our intent correctly or appreciating our wisdom. So the person who reacts negatively is seen as intractable and conceited. Once that assumption is made, resentment becomes the order of the day.

So how do we remove these roadblocks? How do we get both parties to give and receive criticism with respect, patience and understanding? The answer to that escapes me even as I write this.

I believe the problem lies with the fact that criticism is rarely separated from ego — on both sides of the conversation. The giver invokes their ego when they feel they’re qualified to know what the receiver must do to improve their situation. The receiver, on the other hand, now has to figure out if the giver truly believes they’re being helpful or just asserting their authority. And their ego doesn’t make that process easy.

What follows typically resembles a tornado of emotions that can promote positive ideas or ruin relationships for years to come.

Last month, I attended a meetup in Chicago with Emilie Wapnick’s Multipotentialite group. While sharing our current projects and how we hope to grow our Multipod lifestyles, I was offered a great deal of friendly advice that I struggled to not hear as criticism.

They listened to me ramble on about how Multipod living is an uphill battle for my business, my day job, and my life. In an attempt to help me, Emilie and the gang gave suggestions, but many were ideas that I’ve already considered and rejected, or they simply didn’t fit where I wanted to go.

For example, I want to write for magazines, but sorry Michelle, I don’t want to start my own magazine. Why? Because I want to write for magazines. Magazines owners spend more time running their business and less time actually writing for their business.

Also, I’m not waiting for people to hire me to write about arts & culture, Emilie. I’m already doing it here on my blog. Additionally, I’m constantly pitching ideas to other magazines on the same topic. I could create a separate blog focused just on arts & culture, but that would take my focus away from pitching magazines that seek writers covering arts & culture.

Peer Review by AJC1The group saw my frustration, and I saw them judge my frustration. Instead of being honest with Michelle and telling her why owning a magazine wasn’t in my path, I presumed that her feelings ego mattered more than my honesty. I replied that I didn’t know how to start a magazine.

From there, in a somewhat condescending tone, she offered up a host of sources I could use to learn more. I knew these sources (and many more), but I let it slide because I believe in her mind, she really thought she was helping me in the only way she knew how.

In the end, my ego was bruised, but I believe I handled the situation better than most. However, I decided to work on trimming my ideas and elevator pitches to something more concise that will reduce the obvious suggestions. I’ve also decided that I no longer wish to participate in the Multipotentialite group.

It may be easy to foolishly leap and hear friendly advice as criticism, but it’s just as simple to cloak criticism in the form of “friendly advice.” Condescension, sarcastic tones, and unwanted sales pitches aren’t my idea of enjoyable group interaction. Perhaps if we all learned to listen, delineate and question with respect, critical advice wouldn’t feel like such a blow to the ego.

Many elements factor into our growth and success including how we see our ourselves, how we wish others to see us, and how we give and receive criticism. It’s not a simple question of one person giving over to the other. If we’re truly interested in seeing our peers grow, then all of us need to work toward a middle ground. We all may need a lesson in learning to give and receive.

Do you think you give and receive criticism well?
What’s the best piece of critical advice you’ve ever heard?
What’s the worst?