We’ve all experienced criticism, it’s part and parcel of human interaction but it’s worth noting that there are stages of processing that feedback and how it is a journey toward resolution and something more valuable – acceptance.
A recent article by Esther Bintliff in The Financial Times explores the psychology and social importance of how we deal with negative feedback – in personal interactions and in the work-place. Her study is initiated by a response from her husband after she herself attracted negative feedback at work.
“Years ago, after I received some negative feedback at work, my husband Laurence told me something that stuck with me: when we receive criticism, we go through three stages. The first, he said, with apologies for the language, is, ‘F*ck you.’ The second is ‘I suck.’ And the third is ‘Let’s make it better.’
“I recognised immediately that this is true, and that I was stuck at stage two. It’s my go-to in times of trouble, an almost comfortable place where I am protected from further disapproval because no matter how bad someone is about to tell me I am, I already know it. Depending on your personality, you may be more likely to stay at stage one, confident in your excellence and cursing the idiocy of your critics. The problem, Laurence continued, is being unable to move on to stage three, the only productive stage. (Source: “Positive feedback: the science of criticism that actually works,” by Esther Bintliff , The Financial Times, July 21, 2022).
After discovering the author of the 3 step process was actor Bradley Whitford, Bintliff researched to find out more.
“Whitford has aired this theory in public at least twice. Once during a 2012 talk at his alma mater, Wesleyan University, and again when he was interviewed on Marc Maron’s podcast in 2018.
“To Maron, Whitford put it like this: ‘If I’m honest, anytime any director has ever said anything to me, I go through three silent beats: Fuck you. I suck. OK, what?’ He added: ‘I really believe that that is a universal response and some people get stuck on “I suck”. You know people who live there. Some people live on “Fuck you”. Most people pretty quick get to the [third stage].’ I realised that while Laurence said the third stage was “Let’s make it better”, Whitford’s original was the more ambiguous ‘Okay, what?'”
“The cover of FT Weekend Magazine, July 23/24 Feedback is part of our everyday existence. It is widely viewed as crucial to improving our performance at work, in education and the quality of our relationships. Most white-collar professionals partake in some form of annual appraisal, performance development review or 360-degree feedback, in which peers, subordinates and managers submit praise and criticism. Performance management is a big business; the global market for feedback software alone was worth $US1.37 billion in 2020.” (Source: “Positive feedback: the science of criticism that actually works,” by Esther Bintliff , The Financial Times, July 21, 2022).
Bintliff’s journey to find out how to move through the first two stages of dealing with criticism before arriving at the third resonates very strongly with the reactions I have witnessed to criticism from others and also within myself. Like Bintliff, I also accept that dealing with the feelings of criticism – even if it is not accurate, or right are instrumental in arriving at the revelatory last step – the one that allows growth an inner learning.
She highlights important tools such as sitting with the criticism, talking time with it, not reacting initially, even if it engenders anger and resentment. Criticism is a tool but learning how to handle it correctly is a gift.