Criticism part 2 – how to get it

Last week, we explored the act of offering criticism. Now let’s talk about the more challenging act of soliciting and receiving it.

I can’t speak for you (or can I?) but I’ve had enough feedback to choke a camel. Most of it unsolicited and varying levels of irrelevant and unhelpful. A memorable percentage has been hostile. None of that feedback has helped me grow, and most of it made me a lot less inclined to go out looking for more. Seeing as I entered the golden age of social media with a reasonable amount of experience under my belt, I can only imagine what the average aspiring professional receives.

But here’s the rub: We NEED other people to call out our blind spots and weaknesses in a way that we cannot do for ourselves.

So let’s take a deep breath and consider ways to step purposefully into criticism.

#1 Recognize the difference between CONstructive and DEstructive

What AREN’T we accepting today?

Backhanded compliments. People who are clearly stroking their own ego. Anyone who says you aren’t a “real” professional unless you can handle a public shredding.

Things like that.

Aggressive. Off-topic. Unsolicited. Unproductive.

Block it. It wastes time and energy, and stands firmly between you and feedback worth hearing.

Constructive criticism means that it has the potential to help us grow. As a rule, it’s from people we respect on the topic, and from people who know us well enough to understand our strengths, weaknesses and goals.

#2 Constructive Criticism is a sign of professional respect.

Live with this for awhile, because it’s a fact, and worth reframing if feedback gets your hackles up.

LACK of constructive criticism is actually a problem in many fields, particularly for women, who tend to get a useless, “atta girl” or vague disapproval that’s difficult to act on.

There are jerks in the world, to be sure.

But if someone is genuinely invested in your success, they won’t just give you a pat on the head. They will challenge you with constructive criticism.

#3. The view is different in the driver’s seat

I think many of us have such feedback fatigue that we don’t have much experience with ASKING for criticism.

It’s a whole different beast.

Now you’re participatory, not just along for someone else’s ride.

You can help steer the ship! WHO are you interested in hearing from? WHAT do you want them to respond to? WHEN can you give this conversation your full attention?

This is good for you, but it’s also good for them – everyone is busy. IF you’re going to ask someone for feedback, it’s appropriate and helpful to give them a map.

What are you actively trying to improve? What results are you seeing that you’re less than happy with? What have you tried so far?

Help them help you.

#4. Make sure constructive criticism is what you want.

I’m purposely choosing the work “CRITICISM” here, as opposed to feedback.

When people ask for feedback, what they often want is one of two things: 1. Validation that what they’re already doing is awesome or 2. To discuss what everyone else is doing wrong.

If you want to hear where everyone else is falling short, pull up a chair – I’ve always got thoughts.

But if I want constructive criticism, I need to be prepared. Because it’s going to be about ME. And it’s not going to focus on where I’m a rockstar.

We cannot improve much on things we’re already doing well. And we cannot change other people (alas).

So when we wish to GROW, we need to hear about where we fell short. They represent our greatest opportunities for improvement, which is actually kind of exciting, when you think about it.

#5 Beware your Yes Men

My sister-in-law is an unwavering cheerleader. When I need a pep talk, I go to her. (which is often)

But when I was seriously considering leaving my job to open a business, I went to my brother. And I told him, “I need you to listen, and tell me honestly if I’m being stupid. Because I don’t want to put my family at risk.”

He listened. He asked questions. He challenged my assessments and observations. He called out weaknesses, and recommended additional resources.

We all have cheerleaders – and we need them. There can be genuine value in a pep talk. But if you aren’t careful, you can end up surrounded by Yes Men in an echo chamber of your own observations.

Find someone who isn’t afraid to rub your fur in the wrong direction with their honesty.

#6. Pause

If you’re like me, your first reaction to unflattering criticism may be “YEAH, but, . . ” or “SO’S YOUR OLD MAN!!!”


Don’t immediately defend your existing actions. Don’t deflect responsibility. DEFINITELY don’t attack.

Sit. With. it.

Especially if you asked. Especially if it’s hard to hear. Take an honest interval to consider if there’s truth and value in what they’re saying.

Then? Say thank you. Even if you don’t take their advice – ESPECIALLY if you don’t take their advice. Because then they might give you feedback again in the future.

#7. Don’t ask before you’re ready

My diet is total garbage right now. .

But the truth is, I’m just not willing to work on that yet. There are other areas I’m focused on improving.

So if I ask you for feedback, the best that could happen is I’ve wasted your time. The WORST that could happen is we both end up frustrated because you took my request seriously, and expected me to actually DO something. And all I want to DO is eat a cookie.

Constructive criticism will generally include action items – for YOU.

If you don’t have the interest in or bandwidth for making changes, give yourself a pass on seeking feedback (for now.)

If someone gives you reasonable feedback that isn’t part of your current focus, you can file it away and say thanks. If you value you the person who GAVE it to you, let them know why you’re declining their input at this time. Because maybe one day you WILL be ready to pick up that conversation.

#8. Peer review is a gold mine

When we started programs in Minneapolis, a few things surprised me:

First, a lot of students came for feedback as much as instruction – someone trusted and knowledgable to look at their work through critical and supportive eyes. A lot of times, we were covering things they mostly knew.

Second, in our local advanced groups, the longer students worked together, the more they relied on EACH OTHER. There were classes where I weighed in only a few times, and often just to validate what they’d already figured out together.

Peer groups are AT LEAST as valuable as instruction, and though they CAN happen within a class, you don’t NEED a teacher necessarily. Cultivate accountability partners, ask close professional friends, in no uncertain terms, to honor you with their honest feedback. They KNOW you. and you TRUST them. And a colleague is far more accessible than an instructor most days.

So if you want constructive criticism, mine those relationships for gold.

#9. Don’t throw out a perfectly good baby with the bathwater.

Turns out, constructive criticism is really hard to do well. Even in IDEAL circumstances which the current landscape is not.

Two and three years ago, I was so unbelievably jaded by internet “assholery” that pretty much everything got my temper hot.

Some days, it do still be like that: When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

But my tune is changing . . .

I now think we also have a fair number of people who just aren’t GOOD at feedback. And maybe there’s potential to adjust course instead of just kicking the whole train off the rails.

I’m NOT saying put up with public hostility, and I’m NOT saying you owe space to a bunch of unasked-for off-topic recommendations. . .

But if there’s potential for high-quality feedback from someone with the skills/experience to give it, maybe CONSIDER coaching up.

Redirect the conversation to an appropriate time/place. Ask for specifics on what they’re observing. Press them for actionable recommendations – books, videos, etc.

Let them know you’re trying to listen but what you’re hearing isn’t helpful.

So where do we FIND the people we need?

Personally, I think high-quality feedback loops (loops, because feedback should an ongoing, and perhaps reciprocal arrangement) are difficult to create online – ESPECIALLY online only.

But evidence suggests people are doing it.

So you can start by getting connected to other professionals through the Professional Upholsterers Network on Facebook. You can attend a monthly community meeting through The National Upholstery Association. If you live in a state with an active WCAA presence, that can be a good option.

Classes are great, especially if you go in the mindset to connect with other participants.

And don’t be afraid to step outside of upholstery entirely.

If you need business feedback, marketing feedback, process feedback etc. there is a much larger (and possibly more qualified) circle of people you can tap.

Try SCORE and other small business resources. My SCORE mentor has been invaluable, and ALWAYS gives me high quality constructive criticism. I also had a GREAT accountability partner for awhile, who was just a mom friend with similar values who happened to be launching her own business at the same time. DANG she had good feedback – and I was able to return the favor.

Ladies and gentleman, feedback is TOUGH. But it’s IMPORTANT.

Once upon a time, we had large workrooms, we had brick-and-mortar training, we had apprenticeship paths. These resources ALL assumed relationships with the opportunity to solicit and receive decent constructive criticism

Now, those experiences are sweepingly unavailable. So we have to be stronger, more resourceful, more intentional about seeking the input we need to thrive.

Do we need drunken pricks we’ve never met, calling us hacks on facebook? No ma’am/sir, we do not.

But what a tragic injustice if those destructive exchanges deter us from seeking out the feedback that could truly help us grow.

It’s there. Go find it.

Thanks for reading – for more on how to solicit feedback, here’s a great resource:

Harvard Business Review: How to Get the Feedback You Need

If you missed last week’s post on giving feedback, you can read it HERE

I hope you’ll take the opportunity to self-reflect on both of these posts. I find it much easier to look at where other people could improve, but like so many other things, the only person we can truly control is ourselves. So that’s the place to begin.

My current focus is on not providing unsolicited feedback. I’ve managed to stomp a couple decent work relationships right into the ground by completely overwhelming them with recommendations. Well intentioned? Always. But ineffective, nonetheless. I’m learning to just sit on my hands and not touch everything all the time. It is HAAAAARD.

On the receiving end, I’m working on pausing before responding, and more honestly evaluating my own actions and choices.

I’m also trying to improve on how to graciously-but-efficiently decline feedback. As an educator, I THINK? we get SO MUCH INPUT. Everyone wants to weigh in, and our teacher nature is to let them. Unfortunately, in many cases, it’s just not terribly helpful dialogue and politely making space for all of it gets exhausting. How do you decline without shutting feedback out? How do you decline without shutting people down?

We are ALL works in progress.


2 thoughts on “Criticism part 2 – how to get it”

  1. Elizabeth DeCrescenzo

    I just finiahed part I and II; and boy did it hit me like a ton. Of bricks. As usual, its excellent and as usual Im now taking a hard look at myself (past and present actions), taking stock and will move forward…hopefully with more effective and meaningful interactions. Well done and well said.

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