The Sound of No Hands Clapping

This past month, I traveled to Florida to deliver a presentation to a group of health and wellness experts, and I thought I did a bang-up job. My preparation went beyond the norm for this type of event, including a full week spent slaving over the PowerPoint, even going so far as to hire a presentation coach for two sessions to help me iron out some of the kinks (yes, even coaches need a coach!). So when the feedback arrived that my presentation fell somewhat below expectations, I was upset. My message had failed to land. Or as one reviewer delicately put it, “You didn‘t quite connect with everyone in the audience.”

How did I handle this criticism? Like a professional, of course. Here’s what went through my head at that exact moment:

1. I want to cry.

2. You don’t like me.

3. That’s okay, I don’t like you either.

4. I am a terrible presenter.

5. Can I go home now?

Truth be told, I had stopped listening the second the bomb was dropped. Like the soldier caught in a deafening explosion, everything that followed was just a muffled mumbo-jumbo of words that I couldn’t quite hear. I spent the entire flight back to New York stewing, hating the messenger who had delivered this news. She was delusional, she was the one who was couldn’t connect. The nerve!

Most of us need feedback, even if we don’t want to hear it. Why would we? It’s a bitter pill to swallow. It’s not easy to pour your heart and soul into something, expecting a positive response, only to be met with criticism, scorn or indifference. It’s painful and embarrassing. As one executive said to me after a particularly harsh 360 review: “I feel like I just got dragged behind a pick-up truck on ten miles of bad road, with no clothes on.” However if we want to be better, if we want things to improve – we need to avoid clamming up. Unfortunately, the tendency for most of us is to simply batten down the hatches. And yet no light enters a sealed box. And no light means no growth. How to remain open is the challenge.

Let The Defense Rest

Most feedback is usually based, at least in part, on some degree of truth. So try to listen very carefully for that kernel of truth, but don’t feel you need to respond immediately. You might seek clarification (Tell me more about that…Can you tell me why you felt that way…?) but resist the urge to fight for yourself in the moment. Mostly when we hear criticism we are so busy formulating our defense that we fail to really hear anything being said. So let the counsel rest, and try instead to be the judge hearing impartial witness testimony. Active listening helps to avoid misunderstanding. If someone feels you are interested in what they have to say, you’re likely to get more detail, more nuance, and more honesty from them. So seek first to understand – before you defend.

Nothing Personal, Strictly Business Business runs cold; human beings run hot. Yet, if things don’t work out exactly as I would like, it’s usually the result of a mismatch. That is to say, your needs were not met by my offering. At the Florida event for example, the organizers had a particular need that was not fully met by the presentation I delivered. Mismatch. Doesn’t mean they disliked me (at least I don’t think they did), or that they won’t hire me again. What others do or say is always a projection of their own immediate concerns. Rarely is it about you. Think about some of your own business transactions and notice how coldly you make these choices. If you are selling your house, for example, would you rather the realtor who is your friend, or the one who will get you the best price? It’s nothing personal, strictly business. Don’t Get Too Attached

Criticism stings in direct proportion to the amount of attachment we have for any given idea. So don’t hold on too tightly, or become too emotionally invested in any single idea of how things ought to be. Once burned, you may be reluctant to fully commit to a next idea. Caution rarely leads to remarkable. Pixar Animation Studios – the bright people behind Up, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and many others – has created an impressive string of hits by fostering a unique climate of ruthless peer review. In the Pixar model of collaboration, no idea is too far out to be considered. Such a working environment requires a tolerance for risk (and possible failure), trust, respect, and a deep sense of community. It also has the effect of freeing people up, unleashing their creativity. When the best idea wins – everybody wins.

Understand the Value of Criticism There is no guarantee that you’ll be in the zone every time. That’s simply the risk of trying anything. If you live and work in the real world, as most of us do, it’s very hard to avoid constructive criticism. But it doesn’t have to cripple us, or make us feel less than. If we can learn to accept it as part of the sausage-making process, we can use it to our advantage. All successful new launches – whether it’s a presentation like mine, a new product, or a movie like Pixar’s – must first undergo extensive focus group research. This is a necessary part of the treatment, and integral to their eventual success. Why should we be any different?

If three people give you the same piece of feedback, there’s a very good chance they may be right. So maybe you should listen. Billy Wilder, the notoriously acid-tongued German film director hated the process of having to preview his films before a test audience. Hated it! But even he came to understand, and eventually appreciate, the value of bums on seats. Said Billy: “Individually, the audience is a bunch of idiots. But collectively, they are a genius.”

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