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How I learned to shut up and listen to constructive criticism

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The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.

My knee-jerk reaction to receiving negative feedback has always been the immediate and aggressive pursuit of personal vindication. Like a rabid defence lawyer in the court of Me, I deflect, make excuses, question the aptitude of my accuser – anything to avoid taking responsibility for my actions. At least, this is what my dollar-store psychology degree tells me is going on. Before embarking on my quest to openly accept and learn from constructive criticism, I opted to get some advice from the experts.

I consulted Christie Mann, a certified, professional leadership coach who teaches execs how to give and receive feedback in a way that is beneficial to both parties. "It might sounds corny, but the first thing you need to realize is that receiving well-intentioned, constructive feedback is a gift," she tells me, adding that the more we solicit feedback, the easier it is to receive. On the plus side, this means that simply by getting suggestions for self-improvement, I will be improving.

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The best advice on how to actually receive criticism came from a friend who works as a defence attorney: "Make eye contact and listen with your mouth shut. If you must open your mouth, it should be to say 'thank you.' " Extreme, perhaps, but this bit of seemingly obvious advice helped enormously in terms of getting out of my own way. Shut up and listen became my secret mantra.

Memoirs of a defensive daughter

My mom, two sisters and I get together weekly to eat good food and watch The Bachelorette. Last week, I asked each of them to bring a piece of constructive criticism regarding how I might be a better daughter and sister. Interestingly, most of the feedback dealt with my ability (or inability) to take feedback. "You tend to get very emotional and it becomes difficult to have a reasonable discussion with you," my sister Cynthia said. This was a surprise, since I view her as the emotional one. (I'd expected she'd say something how domineering and bossy I am.)

Normally I would have leapt to my own defence immediately. Instead I stuck to the rules – shut up and listen, shut up and listen – reminding myself that this exercise was not about what my sister does, and also that obviously she is (if you'll pardon the Oprah-speak) expressing her truth. My mom's critique was that I don't really listen when someone has a differing viewpoint. I would disagree, but that just seems silly.

To get some professional feedback I consulted an editor who I have worked with for several years. He said that I need to put more time and effort into time management, so that I don't miss deadlines. This is not news (my Grade 6 French teacher once wrote "Courtney is disorganized" on the blackboard as some sort of shaming exercise), but it presented a great opportunity to think about the second step of the constructive criticism journey: setting a specific post-criticism action plan. In a world of unlimited cash flow, I'd hire a life coach to whip me into shape. Instead, I hold a 20-minute time management meeting with myself every morning.

The Odd Couple: Chips and dip edition

The most easily addressed critical interaction of the week happened when I asked one of my closest friends if there was anything I could do to improve our relationship. In a very sweet and thoughtful e-mail, she offered myriad reasons why I am the best friend ever, and then told me that she would really like it if I made an effort to be more aware of our differing standards of cleanliness.

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I learned that she is silently uncomfortable when I eat communal food (guac and chips, for example) without washing my hands. For almost 20 years, we have maintained a certain Oscar-and-Felix dynamic, with her regularly asking me to take my flip-flopped feet off the couch and me accusing her of low-level OCD. I viewed this as a fun aspect of our relationship, but after finding out that she was legitimately distressed, I was more than happy to accommodate. So far, more vigilant pre-snack handwashing has not caused any discomfort on my end.

When I began this experiment, I was secretly skeptical of whether I would learn anything, confident that I had a pretty good sense of my many flaws. In some cases this was true (my boyfriend raised the issue of cleaning up around the house, which I look forward to tackling head-on in next week's challenge), but I was also made aware of certain behaviour patterns that I am more than happy to abandon. In the future I will try to not let self-defence get in the way of self-improvement. Or at least I will shut up and listen before I start building my case.

Reader Response

If it's actual constructive criticism, delivered correctly, then no one should have an issue with it. It's when people criticize badly that it gets people's back up.

– Fiona Kelly

I think it's about confidence, having an open mind and welcoming self-improvement. And that cliché of not just hearing someone, but listening to what they are saying.

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– Nancy Saunders

I think it's about ambition. If you really want to move up, you can't assume you have what it takes right now. Sometimes you have to build yourself up a bit, and to do so you can't have too much pride!

– Andrew Hanna

Next Challenge

Banish casual procrastination! Tune out the little voice that says "I'll get to it later." Instead, tackle every single task that arises, providing it can be done in two minutes or less. Change a light bulb as soon at it goes out, don't leave empty takeout containers on the counter and, for heavens sake, put the lid back on the toothpaste! So often we stress over the hundred tiny tasks on the to-do list. Imagine how much more time you'd have if you took care of the small stuff as it arises.

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