5 Steps to maintaining your cool when faced with stinging criticism

Yesterday morning, I came home from giving a presentation at Laid Off Camp Chandler. I was feeling so good after spending an hour with a room full of positive and eager participants who wanted to know about starting a business. The event was hosted at Gangplank, and watching all the presenters who had come in on a Saturday morning to volunteer their expertise made me so proud to be a member of this community.

When I pulled up to the house, I noticed a number of signs that were taped to my front door and lamppost. They were written in bold red ink, and contained lots of exclamation points.

Without quoting the entire letter and feeling my blood pressure rise again, suffice it to say that a neighbor was dismayed about the alleged “incessant barking” of our dogs. It was noted that their peace and quiet was “destroyed.” And there were threats (with lots of exclamation points) if we did not address this issue.

This was the second such letter that had been taped to the front on my house. The first was a few months ago, when I experimented  with leaving the dogs outside when I went somewhere. Not realizing how much they would react to birds, cats and sounds, I learned that they did bark loudly. The tone of the first letter was identical to the first: lots of exclamation points and a brusque and confrontational tone.

After the first letter, I felt really bad, and immediately made sure that the dogs were never left outside without supervision. If we ever left the house, we would keep them inside. Arizona homes are built with tremendous insulation, so I assumed that even if they barked, the sound would not be unreasonably loud. We live in a mixed community with families and people of all ages. Our homes are pretty close together, so it is normal to not expect total and complete silence. Given the tone of the first letter, I did not feel it productive to engage in discussion, so I just changed the way we managed our dogs and assumed all would be cool.

Given the barrage of notices pasted across my house yesterday, my assumption was wrong.

The first instinct: Blood boiling defense

Unfortunately, there is no way to stop criticism from finding you, even if you are sitting at home.

These modern days, the most common form of critique is a scathing comment to your blog post, or if your critic really wants to drive the point home, an entire blog post devoted to saying negative things about you.

The gut reaction to stinging criticism for most people most likely mirrored mine yesterday:

  • Rapidly beating heart
  • Shallow breath
  • A string of “#%$^&^&^%#@$#$” choice words in my head as I imagined picking up the phone and giving a piece of my mind
  • If you are really riled up, a fist shaken to the ceiling with clenched teeth and a furrowed brow

The more prudent approach: 4 steps to maintain your cool

Thankfully, I did not pick up the phone and address the issue right away. I knew I was too upset, and needed to do some things that would assure:

  1. I did not lead my conversation with anger, which never ends up well
  2. I fully understood the issue, including where I could be at fault
  3. I saw it in the bigger context of my goals of living in my community: I want to be an engaged, supportive, positive neighbor who contributes to the well-being of everyone around me

Instead, I am in the middle of this 5-Step process to make sure that I fully understand the issue before responding.

Step 1: Gather data

Let’s assume that someone writes a blog post about you, detailing the 5 Ways You Don’t Know What You Are Talking About. Figure out:

-What specific facts are they referring to?
-What is the source of their information?
-Who are they? What is their background, history or expertise?
-Who else does this affect?

In my own investigation process about the barking issue, I will methodically go around to every house in our square block and ask each owner  if they a) can hear our dogs barking from inside b) consider it an annoyance c) desire us to do anything about it. I will also review the homeowner’s policies about pets, as well as local noise ordinances.

Step 2: Evaluate it

I have never, ever, received scathing criticism that did not also include at least one valid point in it. Most has about half a dozen, if you are open to seeing them. When reviewing the data, ask yourself:

-Are any of these points valid?
-Did I say or do anything “wrong”? (“wrong” is a subjective thing, covering “Is it inaccurate?” or “Does it go against my beliefs or ethics?” or “Did I leave out some important things,” etc.)
-What additional information do I need to evaluate my position?

Step 3: Engage expert (aka High Council of Jedi Knights) feedback

There is a reason why I continually encourage people to get a High Council of Jedi Knights. In times like these, you want someone with technical experience, expertise and a solid sense of ethics to give you perspective on what you should do.

The first time I got scathing blog comments, I sent a worried email to Guy Kawasaki. His response was brief but memorable. “Controversy is good,” he said.  This put criticism in a proper perspective for me as a new blogger.

In other, more complex cases, the expert can help you understand if you were at fault, validate if you were right, or simply provide support for a challenging situation.  This is why we all need elders in our life; they have lived through so many challenging situations and now have the vantage point of experience and perspective.

Step 4: Decide if engagement is prudent, and if so, the best way to engage

The most common advice I hear about internet conflict is “ignore the trolls.” But what, exactly, constitutes a troll? If someone is writing clearly offensive things, using curse words or insults, it can be easier to peg in the “troll” category.  If it starts to blow up and get lots of traffic, that can be damaging to your reputation, tracked by Google. But sometimes, someone who might feel equally as passionate and righteous about their point of view as you do about yours can have tremendous value in helping you to grow and get more solid understanding of your field of expertise. In this case, engaging with them could be a wonderful idea, as long as the communication is civil and respectful.

In most cases, I would recommend:

-Do it out of the public eye with an email or a phone call (although the irony is not lost on me that I am writing a public blog post about my issue :) )
-Prepare yourself with your data, and if you are afraid of getting angry right away, script the first 30 seconds of your call “Stanley, this is Cherie, I wondered if you might have 10 minutes to discuss an issue with you. I know by your blog post that there is already some heat to our topic, so may I suggest a way to have the conversation so that both of us get the opportunity to express our viewpoints?”
-Always assume that everything is being recorded, and you would be comfortable with it being shown on CNN’s evening newscast.

If you feel it necessary to respond publicly:

-Focus on the facts. All eyes will be on your argument, and you can bet your detractors will investigate every fact, person or source you cite.
-Do not stoop to insults, or curse words. This will only weaken your argument, and inflame a knee-jerk response.
-Apologize for anything that you deem your fault, and clearly state your position.

Step 5: Gather the lessons, drop the resentment

Some of the best personal and professional growth comes from challenging situations. After working through the steps above, ask yourself:

  • What can you learn from this experience?
  • How can it make you a better (person) (professional) (member of your community?)
  • What advice would you give to someone else in a similar situation?
  • What will you do differently in the future to avoid a similar situation?
  • What are you really proud of in how you handled this?

Once the lessons are drawn, check in and notice if you still have some lingering anger, fear or sadness.

Dispose of these emotions in whatever your customary fashion:

-Watch copious amounts of comedies or, in my case, Law & Order
-Read your favorite inspirational quotes
-Call your parents and let them remind you how wonderful you are
-Write the angry/fearful/sad thoughts down on a piece of paper, then set them on fire in a safe location.

Once this is done, LET GO! Carrying resentment forward will cloud your own happiness, and hold you back from taking risks and showing up in full color in your life.

We must learn to do this in our personal and public lives. The level of truly destructive dialogue happening in my country right now troubles me deeply.

We have it in us to disagree openly, and respectfully. Best of luck!

I have no idea what the direct correlation is, but ever since the flyer issue came upon my front door yesterday, the dogs have been unusually quiet. I think they want to be conscientious and positive members of my community as much as I do. :)

I am fully confident that we will come to a mutually beneficial solution, since I know my neighbors and I are all reasonable people who desire harmony in our community. I will update you on the outcome!

Shoki, one of our accused barking offenders, who had this response while I was writing this post :)

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