No one wants to hear they did something wrong.  It feels like failure. The first time (and perhaps every time) we have a negative comment on an observation, we want to protest.  Our first reaction is to defend, even if we only do this mentally.  At that point we’ve shut down.  We can’t take in anything beyond the statement that hurt, and sometimes what is offered as feedback is taken as criticism. The reverse can also be true, but it happens less frequently.

In a blog post, Dan Rockwell offers advice on How to Respond to Unfair Critics Without Bloodshed. I appreciate his observation that “criticism is a leadership opportunity.”  Remembering this will help you do a better job at managing your responses. Here are some of his recommendations:

  • Reflect don’t retaliate – Pause and think. The “critic” may be right, in which case there is something important to learn. Focus on the message, not the delivery.Taking a moment to pause will help. What caused the critic to come to that conclusion? How could you have prevented this? Is there something the other person missed or was unaware of?
  • Compliment don’t criticize – By acknowledging the critic, you take the sting out of their words and change the relationship dynamic. You acknowledge the value of what they offered as well as the person offering it. As a result, you may create an ally.
  • Perceive, don’t pontificate – A critic’s words say more about them than they say about you. Instead of responding, you can use this as an opportunity to learn about the critic from the criticism. You may hear what the person is passionate about and that will give you clues to working with them in the future.
  • Fuel up, don’t fall down – Embrace the learning opportunity and move forward. Why give someone the power to make you retreat? You know you’re a leader. Just because a program or a project wasn’t perfect is no reason not to continue.

When you offer a comment on a project, think of how you are being perceived as the sender.  You may believe you are providing feedback, but that might not be what the receiver hears. The results can affect your success as a leader.

Consider what happens when you give feedback to students. Pressed for time, you may not remember to choose your words carefully.  You might say, “Refer back to the directions I gave the class.” You meant for the student to take more time before plunging into the task, but the student heard was criticism that they didn’t read closely enough. Their reaction, whether voiced or unvoiced, maybe anger and resentment or they feel crushed. Whichever it is, you have stalled their learning. Instead, offer a response aimed at support such as, “I love your eagerness. Do you think reviewing the directions again will help you be more successful?”

Angry students want to get back at you for causing them hurt. Crushed students decide they are incapable of learning and retreat.  And while one incident will not create lasting harm, repeated ones will. You may not know what else is going on for a student, but you do have an opportunity to create a supportive dynamic when they work with you.

You need to be equally watchful when speaking with teachers. Although you would never criticize a project they want to implement, if you attempt to suggest too many changes/additions to improve it, they are likely to hear implied criticism.  They won’t be back. The same is true if you become impatient with their struggles with new tech. Stay focused on what they are trying to achieve and where they want your help. Support their needs rather than changing them.

A good leader also asks for feedback. Be careful, however, to be certain you’re not really looking for compliments.  Asking a teacher, “How do you think this lesson went?” sounds like a request for feedback, but if all you want to hear are positive comments, it’s a setup for both of you. Instead, trust yourself and be brave enough to ask, “What do you think I could have done better?” You will get a more honest response.  One that you can use rather than one that makes you feel good.

Feedback is important. We need it to learn and grow. To be a strong leader, be aware enough to give feedback, not criticism, and look for ways to take criticism as feedback.

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