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Context + Criticism

Responding to Criticism

May 11, 2022

I was in a strategic planning session recently, and a friend of mine and I were talking about criticism. I was recounting the methods used in architecture school to help condition students to be in an objective mindset to take feedback.

This training prevents the following from happening, in sequence. I will design a house for you. I present the design to you, and you tell me (in no uncertain terms) that you hate it. Now there are two things that can happen next as a direct result of that feedback.

Criticism Responses

The first is that I can have an emotional reaction, get defensive and potentially ruin my ability to work with you because of my response to your feedback on “my” design. You would walk away feeling that I am unprofessional, negative and unable to help you. That’s generally where a lot of architecture students start out their training in school.

The second, and generally what we learn from years in school, is that I am prepared to receive constructive feedback. After you tell me that you hate “the” design, my reaction in this model resembles a more solution-based approach. “OK, where can this design improve?” or “Let’s unpack what you don’t like about this design solution and workshop some solutions.”

If I — for lack of a more professional characterization — throw a tantrum because of your feedback, then that leaves us both nowhere in terms of a solution. For example, it’s not “my” design. It’s “the” design. That’s an objective mindset versus an emotionally attached one.

My friend’s response to this was something to the effect of “I wish you could teach my kid to take some of that criticism about his baseball swing!” I started thinking about that as we talked. “I don’t think that would work,” I said. “He isn’t in the right frame of mind to be able to hear that in the way that he would be able to use to improve or think about the feedback objectively.”

Let’s set aside for a moment that we are talking about a child. Anyone who did not get the same level of development around conditioning themselves to be able to listen dispassionately to feedback being offered to them runs the same risk as my friend’s son. Architecture school for me was about two things — learning how to solve problems and being able to convert critical feedback into something useful.

Delivering Criticism

Absent of this type of education, there would be a tendency to think the perpetrator of the criticism was being rude, depending on the level of feedback, or that the person doesn’t feel positively about anything — and therefore the criticism is meaningless to the receiver.

The remedy to the above is some thoughtfulness around the context in which feedback is being given and the appropriate delivery. In my own personal instance, you could — in theory — offer me whatever types of comments you feel would be helpful and I would likely be able to adapt and think more dynamically about responses and remedies.

In the case of my friend’s son, the solution would have to adapt to deliver the same type of feedback but run through a completely different lens — his tolerance for direct language and candor, his emotional maturity, his ability to listen with an open mind rather than being defensive and paramount to everything else, he must not take this feedback personally, leaving it in the context of someone trying to help.

And you, as the offeror of that feedback, must also be aware of the receiver’s ability to use the data constructively. If they are not able to do so in the form you are offering, then you must adapt your strategy to better fit the conditions and constraints of that specific circumstance. (My friend whispers his feedback in the coach’s ear.)

I’m not saying I would or would not be a good baseball swing coach to my friend’s son, but I would have to adjust how I deliver and receive feedback and closely watch his reaction for our conversation to have its intended effect.

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Joe Benesh

Joe Benesh is the President and CEO of The Ingenuity Company, located in Des Moines. The Ingenuity Company specializes in Strategic Planning, Diagramming, Organizational Design Thinking, and Leadership/Change Facilitation. He also teaches strategic planning at the University of Iowa in the MBA Program.