How to Handle Surprise Criticism

“Peter, there’s something we want to talk to you about,” Mark said as we were sitting on the ground eating dinner.

It was the summer of 1990, and Mark, Rich, and I were instructing a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course, leading about 15 students for a month in the Wind River Mountain Range in Wyoming. Our students were at their own campsites nearby, preparing to sleep.

I looked at Mark and then over at Rich. Both were staring at the ground.

“What’d I do?” I joked. Rich shifted uncomfortably as Mark continued.

“Actually, there is something…”

I felt my muscles tense and my adrenaline flow as they told me I was talking too much, spending too much time with the students. that I needed to separate myself more, be quieter. I asked them a few questions to understand their perspective better but it was hard to really take in their answers as my mind raced:

I thought the course had been going terrifically well. Do they want me to be just like them? But they’re aloof and distant! That’s just not my style! Anyway, are the students complaining? It should be a good thing that I’m spending time with our students! When was I talking too much? Are they right? Maybe I’m not made to be a NOLS instructor. Why are they ganging up on me?

After that, for me, the course went downhill. I became self-conscious and awkward, second-guessing every interaction I had with students and with my co-leaders.

On that trip, I let the perspective of my peers — valid though it may have been — emotionally overpower me. But that was 20 years ago. Now I take criticism right in stride.

Yeah, right.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post, Live Life as an Experiment, that received a lot of strong criticism. People called my behavior unethical. Disingenuous. Manipulative. Materialistic. Deplorable.

Wait, I want to say, you don’t know me. I’m not any of those things. But clearly, to many people, my article communicated that my actions were. And when I sat down to write my next piece I found myself hesitant, unsure of my writing, concerned about how it would be perceived.

Any criticism can be hard to accept. But surprise feedback — criticism that seems to come from nowhere, about an issue we haven’t perceived ourselves — is the hardest. We’re far more likely to be defensive.

Because it’s not just about admitting, it’s about perceiving. Before we can accept something, we have to become aware of it. Like the criticism I received on the NOLS course, the feedback to my article completely blindsided me. I had no idea people would react the way they did, no sense that I was writing anything controversial.

That kind of feedback exposes you to yourself, which is why it is both tremendously unsettling and exceptionally valuable. It’s also why our defensiveness is so predictable and so counterproductive. The things we most need to hear are often the things we defend against hearing the most.

To take in surprise criticism more productively, we need a game plan. As you listen to the criticism and your adrenaline starts to flow, pause, take a deep breath, and:

Look beyond your feelings. We call it constructive criticism and it usually is. But it can also feel painful, destabilizing, and personal. Notice, and acknowledge — to yourself — your feelings of hurt, anger, embarrassment, insufficiency, and anything else that arises. Recognize the feelings — label them even — and then put them aside so the noise doesn’t crowd out your hearing.

Look beyond their delivery. Feedback is hard to give, and the person offering criticism may not be skilled at doing it well. Even if the feedback is delivered poorly, it doesn’t mean it’s not valuable and insightful. Not everything will be communicated in “I” statements, focused on behaviors, and shared with compassion. Avoid confusing the package with the message.

Don’t agree or disagree. Just collect the data. If you let go of the need to respond, you’ll reduce your defensiveness and give yourself space to really listen. Criticism is useful information about how someone else perceives you. Make sure you fully get it.

That means asking questions to further explore what you’re being told. Probe. Solicit examples. Maybe even play devil’s advocate, pushing the criticism back on itself, in the spirit of understanding it more fully.

If you’re worried that will look defensive, then explore the criticism with a third party instead. After receiving critical comments to my article, I asked several people — trusted friends who know me well enough to be honest with me — whether they saw what some others who were critical saw.

Later, with some distance, decide what you want to do. Data rarely forces action, it merely informs it. Recognizing that the decision, and power, to change is up to you will help you stay open.

Once you’ve got some time, space, and grounding, think about what you heard — what the data is telling you — and make choices about if, what, and how, you want to change.

Sometimes, you’ll choose to change your behavior. I learned a lot from reading the comments and discussing them with others. I realized that what I considered playful, others saw as hurtful. That to experiment for my own gain is ethically questionable. That my message can be lost when my examples are controversial. And that I have to be careful about my tendency to put my needs over the needs of others.

But sometimes, you’ll decide not to change your behavior. That perhaps, you’re better off staying the same and changing your surroundings. After that NOLS course, I led several more expeditions, but I never felt that I could live up to my colleagues’ expectation of a quiet, authoritative, slightly removed outdoorsman.

Eventually, I left NOLS and joined the HayGroup, a consulting firm in NY. In my first week, I remember sitting quietly on a client call led by Andy Geller, a senior partner. About 20 minutes into the call he pressed the mute button and said “Peter, say something. Anything. I know you can add value to this call and the client needs to know it too.”

He turned the sound back on and I smiled, thinking: Talk more? I like this consulting thing!

Criticism can be an incredible gift, a field guide for acting with impact in the world. All we need is enough patience and presence to read it.