“Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)
One of my go-to questions when I meet with someone as a communication/life coach is:
“How do you receive and process negative feedback and constructive criticism?”
Sometimes, people know the answer. Sometimes I have to provide a few multiple choice options:
(1) Do you usually deny it? Assume it’s not true?
(2) Do you get depressed? Maybe shut down or give up?
(3) Do you get fired up? Determined to prove the criticizer wrong or to overcome whatever weakness the feedback and criticism points to?
(4) or do you get depressed, shut down and THEN get fired up and determined?
The most difficult to deal with are the two extremes of denying and shutting down.
I don’t know about you, but my knee jerk reaction is to deny. Way back in college, my favorite interpersonal communication professor, Dr. Grasty, assured me I wasn’t alone by confirming that:
“When we are criticized, our tendency is to be defensive.”
And then he gave us this sage advice:
“Don’t be a deluded wimp. Have the courage to look for any truth in the criticism. Strip away any acrimonious language, any selfish motivation or defensiveness of the criticizer and diligently search for even a nugget of truth in the accusation.”
This is one of those occasions where the words “the truth hurts” ring loud and true.
I’ve learned that in order to grow – personally, professionally, mentally, physically and most importantly, spiritually, I have to face the truth of where I am right now.
Praying for God to search my heart. Asking Him to give me the courage to look at what He reveals. Begging Him to comfort me when He shows me the ugly that’s hiding in there, layered in rationalizations and rainbows.
And praying for Him to equip me with the motivation and stamina needed to purge from my life the things that separate me from Him.
“The heart of man plans his way,
but the LORD establishes his steps.” Proverbs 16:9 (ESV)
It’s January, time for new year’s resolutions and fresh starts. New goals. New plans.
I feel a metaphor coming on.
When I use my GPS to help me get somewhere, I not only have to set a destination, but I have to set my current location.
I don’t know about you, but in life, when I set a goal, I don’t intuitively take an honest, objective look at my current situation. Intellectually, I know that when I want to “go somewhere,” I need to have a clear and realistic understanding of where I am now, before I start trying to figure out how I’m going to get where I’m going. I wish I could say I always take stock of my current situation before I start.
When I STOP and pray about a goal, when I ask God to show me if the goal is in line with His Word and if it’s a goal He even wants me to pursue, when I ask for His guidance on how to achieve it, when I ask Him to show me who and what I need to help me,
I see things much more clearly.
When I genuinely pray for Him to help me figure all that out, the Holy Spirit leads me to reflect, not just on my desires and plans, but also on where I am right now.
Sometimes, that means taking a long hard look in the mirror. An HONEST look. I don’t like seeing my weaknesses. They ain’t pretty. But I need to know the truth.
Sometimes God reveals it to me. Sometimes God uses people to reveal it to me. Sometimes the truth comes unsolicited and wrapped in emotionally charged language. I can dismiss the words because they were spoken in anger instead of “in love” but when I’m smart (and brave), I strip away the emotion and search the content for nuggets of truth.
Just because feedback is mean, doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth in it.
Sometimes, I need to give people permission to tell me the truth. Friends, acquaintances, experts, strangers…
When the only feedback someone ever gives me is positive, I usually say that person “blow rainbows.” Their feedback loses credibility with me. It’s statistically improbable that I’m great at everything I do.
Sometimes a friend who loves me will take me aside and tell me a hard truth. Sometimes I need to ask a friend what they think and give them permission – encourage them – to tell me the truth. Sometimes, I need to pay people. In my life, I’ve paid therapists and voice teachers to tell me the truth.
And then I need to be quiet and listen. Because my knee-jerk reaction is to explain how they are wrong. How they don’t understand. To try and get them to see things from MY point of view – the point of view I had before I asked for the feedback.
Then, I need to process what I hear. Investigate. Search my heart and the circumstances to determine if there’s truth in the feedback. I’m not the most objective person when it comes to evaluating my “current location.”
Are you making new goals? Pray and ask the Lord to show you your current location.
I’ve known for a very long time that I’m different. Not “better” different. Because, really, “better” is relative. Better than what? The comparisons are limitless. and I’m thinking at least 50% of them wouldn’t be pretty. “Different” can imply too much trouble. too much work. weird. tiresome. exasperating. I don’t deny those adjectives. They’re not my favorite, but they’re not untrue.
I’m probably most at home with the idea of square pegness. I’ve gotten used to the fact that I usually don’t fit. It bothered me so much more when I was a kid.
WHAT THE H.E. double hockey sticks is THAT DOING HERE?
no no no no no. That has got to GO.
Somehow, somewhere, some way, the idea that I’m “doing it WRONG” had planted itself smack in the middle of my writing path, taking me on a multi-month detour that led straight into a dead end. I stopped “doing it” altogether and focused instead on the WAY I was doing it. Which again, I perceived believed was WRONG.
Ironically, the thing that triggered the paralyzing self-doubt was the exact same thing that knocked me free from it.
~ Someone telling me my blog posts were selfish made me forget that a blog, by definition is an online journal. So, by definition, MY blog is about what I think and how I feel and how I process. It’s not a place where I write one-size-fits all articles directed at the masses in exchange for money. I intentionally don’t monetize this blog because I want to say what I want to say without outside censorship. Almost overnight, internal censorship resulted in words that were so restricted and appropriately vanilla that proofing them was like reading something written by a complete stranger. A boring stranger. KMN. I forgot that clicking – or not clicking – a mouse button is a choice every single person who reads my blog is free to make…or NOT make.
~ Someone telling me they don’t read my blog because I tend to ramble on, somehow made me count my words – instead of considering the fact that maybe they just DON’T WANT TO READ it. I took the “ramble on” feedback to mean that I needed to learn to write more concisely – instead of considering the possibility that maybe – just maybe – what I have to say just flat out doesn’t interest them.
~ Two different people tell me they sometimes have to read something I’ve written twice and I focus on the one who tells me I lost them instead of focusing on the one who wants to have coffee to explore what I said and talk about what she took away from it after the second, slower read it required and the deeper thinking it led to.
~ And most frustrating and challenging of all, there were widespread tangential comments from, and conversations with, multiple people about both my Christ-centered church and my search for joy blog posts which didn’t seem to be related to the content of what I had actually written. I had written extensively about the why and how we do things and the feedback was all about what we do – or about something else entirely. I was overwhelmed and grieved with the heartbreaking realization that we were suffering from a fatal illness and the feedback I was hearing was all about how dedicated we are to our health and how hard we work to eat right and exercise. It was a disconnect I couldn’t reconcile.
and so I shut down. no more writing until I could learn how to do it with more clarity.
Finally, after months of being unable to even open my book draft, and after finally identifying exactly WHY (a lack of confidence in my ability to effectively encode ANYthing I wanted to say), I began asking people to restate, in their own words, what they thought I said. One after another, multiple people made it crystal clear to me that my encoding was spot on. The message was clear. It was understood.
It was just rejected.
wait. that’s probably just a different kind of bad.
BUT IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH MY ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY!
I’m used to rejection. Being dismissed is old hat. I’m SO much better at respectfully agreeing to disagree than I’ll ever be at pretending to agree.
But being an educator and believing I had become an incompetent communicator? That was paralyzing.
This feedback led to a significant pivot point. These people were able to succinctly restate my message. They had a very clear understanding of what I wrote and their ability to precisely restate what I said – along with their rejection of it – was just the epiphany I needed to break free from this quagmire. In that pivot point moment, I saw it. I was suffering from toxic levels of avoidance. I couldn’t write. Not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because by NOT writing, there was absolutely ZERO chance I could create selfish, rambling, rhetoric that loses people. I had spent weeks re-reading previous blog posts with the eye of an iron glute professor armed with textbook communication theory and a psychological red pen that could berate Dr. Seuss for lack of clarity and nonsensical vocabulary.
I’m not saying I’m going to insulate myself from honest, yet sometimes negative feedback because it might derail me again. I understand the dangers of a steady diet of rainbows. I’ve paid a therapist and a voice teacher to tell me the truth. I’m going to keep seeking feedback. And NOT only from people who believe every kid who plays should get a trophy. I just need to REMIND MYSELF of ONE thing EVERY. SINGLE. time I process a word of it:
I’m a square peg.
and I LIKE being square. I think round things are inefficient uses of space. And I know the look I get when I say that out loud to someone. It goes with the eye roll you just gave me. Nobody thinks or cares about the the spacial efficiency of square objects.