02 jul 2018 Dealing with criticism
Criticism hurts. Hence, it can be stressful, tense and sometimes traumatic. Still, it is such a natural part of life, including professional life, that knowing how to make the best out of it is an important skill for us to keep emotionally healthy. Below I list a few aspects to consider and that can prove useful in our field.
- Criticism or feedback? We are faced with criticism on a regular basis and no matter where it comes from, we have to learn if it is meant to be constructive, ‘containing helpful and specific suggestions for positive change’, or if it is destructive, aimed at only harming and offending us. The former is more similar to what is known as feedback (as explained below). The latter can be (and should be) ignored. The key issue is being able to differentiate between one and the other and react accordingly.
- If I were in your shoes…: among the many tips found in articles approaching criticism, perhaps the most basic and most helpful for professional life is ‘change your perspective’. For instance, let’s focus on some different roles we can play in ELT. All of us have had to write an essay at school and hand it in for marking. The teacher would them read it, correct it and give us a mark. If we got a ‘ten’, we’d be happy and say the teacher was great (and fair). If we got a low mark, we would probably tend to blame the teacher. Another example refers to coordinators and teachers. Most of us have had a coordinator or more experienced teacher observe our lesson. If they liked the lesson, we’d be proud of ourselves and of our competence. If the coordinator didn’t really like the lesson, or parts of it, we could feel hurt, and maybe treated unfairly. Of course, this all depends on howit is done, but I have never met anybody who felt in very high spirits after hearing criticism. Now, try to put yourself in the shoes of the teacher who has corrected the piece of homework which was below expectations, or a coordinator who has observed a lesson which needed improvement. If you change perspectives you would probably see things under a different light.
- How dare you criticise my work? When we listen to (or read) comments about our work that are not exactly complimentary, we tend to call them criticism (and react negatively). If these comments come from a peer, or somebody we consider less knowledgeable, we also tend to react badly and call it criticism or maybe envy. However, if this criticism comes from somebody who we consider superior, we tend to deal with it better and might even call it feedback. This might explain why teachers tend not to be big fans of peer observation and accept being observed ‘by a superior’ as a given, not as something necessarily positive or truly aimed at professional improvement, which is a shame.
- Let an unpleasant experience make you stronger: criticism can help deepen understanding of our work and of how others perceive it. Being more open to criticism can help us understand what is of high quality, and what can be done better. As educators, we keep saying there is always room for improvement, but when it comes to our own practice we tend to be defensive. We can (and probably should) use information in criticism to improve performance, results or appreciation.
- Try not to take it personally: ten out of ten articles on how to deal with criticism say we should not take it personally but focus on the message that is being conveyed. Taking a step back and, again, trying to change perspectives, will probably help us not overreact. It is a natural impulse to feel uncomfortable about criticism and learning how to observe our own reactions to being criticised will probably be more useful than trying to snap back.
In short, accepting that we are not perfect and that our work is not always going to be applauded can be turned into a positive and enlightening experience. As the philosopher Elbert Hubbard put it, ‘to avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing’, so dealing with it is inevitable. Learning how to criticise and how to be criticised can bring us hard, unpleasant moments and have consequences, but like everything that matters in life, who said it was easy?
Definition extracted from Business Dictionary available at https://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/constructive-criticism.html. Accessed on May 30th, 2018.