Thursday, April 18, 2013

How To Respond To Criticism (Part 2: Dance)

How To Respond To Criticism (Part 2: Dance)

Fred Kofman

Professor of Leadership and Coaching, Author of Conscious Business

The goal of verbal aikido is to transform a potential fight into a dance. The principles I presented in my previous post are common sense, but their practice is anything but common.

I have made a composite of several challenging comments to my listening and honest-and-respectful posts illustrate how these principles can apply to real conversations.

Note that the context for these conversations is LinkedIn, a site where professionals connect through respectful dialogue. I would not even start this conversation in a negative environment.

It was difficult to find challenging comments. Over 95% of the 1,000+ comments to my previous articles expressed gratitude, praise or extensions. Each one of those comments encourages me to share more of what I've learned. I want to return my gratitude to all of you who wrote them, as well as to the ones that wrote the negative ones I quote below.

It is unfair to have the last word in this fictional debate with readers who didn't like what I wrote. I ask for your indulgence, as my purpose is not to win arguments but to illustrate how to produce harmony among opposing views, to turn a fight into a dance.

Italics reflect direct quotes from readers. The rest is my imagination.

* * *

Reader (R): "What a stupid article."

Me (M): "I'm disappointed you find it stupid. I failed to make it relevant to you."

R: "You failed, indeed. Your principles do not apply when dealing with dishonest people. They will take humility for weakness and try to cheat me."

M: "That is certainly possible. Dishonest people will take advantage of humility. I guess people have cheated you like that."

R: "Yeah, but not anymore. Nobody cheats me now."

M: "I see how that would work for you. I wrote the article assuming that the proportion of dishonest people in your environment was small. That would make taking the risk of being cheated occasionally worthwhile, like a company extending credit and making a provision for bad debt. But if there were a lot of such people around you, this would not be true. How do you test whether people are honest and deserve your humility?"

* * *

R: "Your article is ridiculous."

M: "I guess you disagree with it."

R: "You simply cannot have everyone in the company thinking different and contrasting things and feeling equally right because the boss has implied it through carefully sterilized ego boosting, personal growth feedback!"

M: "Oh, so you think that I am advocating that everybody feel equally right, and that bosses should give feedback in a sterilized ego boosting way?"

R: "That´s what you wrote."

M: "Hmmm, I didn´t intend to say that, but I gave you that impression."

R: "You sure did."

M: "Well, then I would like to change it. Can I clarify?"

R: "Only an arrogant jerk would deny you the chance to explain yourself."

M: "Thank you. I don't believe everybody is equally right. Propositions are true or false. It's possible to be wrong about the facts. It's possible to reason incorrectly. That is why rational discourse tests propositions against objective standards of reason and evidence."

R: "So people can be wrong! What´s your point then?"

M: "My point is that people have reasons to say what they say. I want to understand their reasons before I challenge them. For example, now that I understand that you believe I am encouraging bosses to give feedback in a sterilized ego boosting way, I can understand why you think the article is ridiculous. I would think so too!"

* * *

R: "LinkedIn should not publish stuff like this!"

M: "You see some negative consequences from my views…"

R: "Absolutely! I have seen organisations slowly decay and crumble over extended periods through the denial of serious debate and seen some of the most horrible practices impact people – including the loss of visionaries - come from those who implement such a cowardly way of dealing with colleagues."

M: "You think I am advocating a cowardly way of dealing with colleagues that will destroy organizations?"

R: "Yes! This is the kind of politically correct bullshit that muddles thinking. It´s a cowardly way to make everybody feel good about themselves even if they´re dead wrong."

M: "Hmmm, I see why you`d be against it. So would I. What would be a better way?"

R: "When people are wrong, just tell them they`re wrong. It`s unfortunate that we need to be humble and empathetic in the workplace when we'd rather (and the person you are speaking with may benefit from) a more direct statement like "Are you barking mad?"

M: "So you'd rather I tell you you´re barking mad because I don´t agree with your comment?"

R: "Well, at least that would be honest."

M: "It wouldn´t. I don´t think you are barking mad. I think you have some valid concerns given what you believe I propose. And I know that I am not proposing what you believe. So I would like to clarify what I mean and see if you have a suggestion to make the article more helpful for the readers."

* * *

R: "Your article starts off with valid reasoning but then drifts off into saying that critics are essentially always wrong unless they package their message so nobody gets hurt (which equals nobody cares)."

M: "I see why you think my reasoning is invalid. I agree with your point that it is invalid to say that critics are essentially always wrong unless they package their message in a way that nobody gets hurt."

R: "You disagree with your own words?"

M: "No, I am saying you are inferring meanings that I did not intend to convey."

R: "Well, you said so."

M: "You seem quite sure of that. Can you tell me where in the text I say that critics are wrong unless they package their message in a way that nobody gets hurt?"

R: "I don´t remember."

M: "Go ahead, look it up. The article is on line. I`ll wait for you here."

* * *

R: "There won't be much innovation if everybody always agrees on everything for the sake of peace. Ruffling feathers is all part of it as long as it is done in a respectful manner and made clear that it is not meant in a personal way. Believe it or not, there are still a few of us out here who like people to say what they mean and mean what they say."

M: "I couldn´t agree more with you. Rational debate is my favorite contact sport. What puzzles me is where do you get that I want everybody to always agree on everything for the sake of peace. I am ruffling your feathers here, because I think you are reading what you want and not what I wrote. In logic this is called the "straw man fallacy", which means attacking a distorted version of your opponent´s argument. Where did I write that people should not say what they mean?"

* * *

R: "Do you think there is a place for dangerous language? I think the dangerous language comes across a lot stronger. It's punchier and has a bigger impact. It's like swearing, sometimes you want to have a bigger effect and therefore a swear word might be more appropriate."

M: "When stakes are high, I find dangerous language dangerous. It comes, as you say, a lot stronger, like a punch with a big impact. I don´t know anybody who likes to get punched. If you want to hurt people, this is a great way to do it. If you want to collaborate with them, why would you want to intimidate them with swear words?"

* * *

R: "This article attempts to paint a picture where no one is wrong. This is similar to the "everyone is special" sentiment that children receive, which is actually damaging to a child's development because it does not encourage humility, which is a trait you describe as an asset in this very article."

M: "I see why you think the article is contradictory. The picture you say it paints, though, is not in the article, but in your mind. I dare say you are 'wrong' in attributing your interpretation to the article as if it were a fact. Furthermore, you are drawing a comparison to the 'everyone is special,' which seems like a red herring to me. I don´t believe everyone is special (a contradiction in in its own terms), I believe everyone has his or her reasons to say what he or she says. I would find it much easier to discuss this with you if, instead of claiming that you are quoting what I say while providing a subjective interpretation, you would inquire first about my point of view."

* * *

R: "Sometimes there are poorly conceived ideas that don't stand up to critical testing and they are, in fact, stupid ideas. Perhaps what you mean to say is that it is not socially expedient to blurt out that something is 'stupid'?"

M: "Thanks for checking. I mean to make a much stronger claim than social expediency. What you call 'stupid' or 'poorly conceived' fails to measure up to your personal standards. Humility, for me, is akin to the scientific spirit that tests propositions logically and empirically against universal standards before considering them properly or poorly conceived. I do believe that people can be wrong. In fact, there are hundreds of ways in which people are fall into logical fallacies, and thousands of ways in which people make mistakes about their facts. That is why we need an objective method for rational discourse, because it gives us an objective way to test our propositions against reason and evidence."

* * *

R: "You are drawing a picture of the world where everyone is essentially right in his or her own way. That is a utopia, no?"

M: "You are saying two things, if I understand you correctly. (If not, please set me straight.) (1) That I am drawing a picture of the world where everyone is essentially right in their own way, and (2) That a world in which everyone is essentially right in their own way is a utopia. I agree with the second, although I would call it a nightmare. I don´t agree with the first. I think everyone has their reasons to say what they say, and that they believe these reasons are correct –or at least they must pretend to believe this, or be exposed as a shameless manipulator. Thus, before arguing that someone is wrong, I believe it is best to understand what he or she claims, and why he or she thinks his or her claim is valid. Then, it is possible to challenge it respectfully."

* * *

R: "If someone has a strong negative opinion (as in "the idea seems stupid to me"), it does not automatically mean they act as a three-year-old and are immature. That's quite a patronizing view."

M: "Indeed, I would call that view patronizing too! Let me clarify. I don´t have a problem with negative opinions, but with aggressive expressions such as 'this is a stupid idea.' The idea is not stupid as a matter of fact. It may be incorrect or ineffective compared to some information I have, but what would I gain by patronizingly calling it 'stupid'? I'd just make it difficult for my counterpart to receive my comments."

* * *

R: "But sometimes (sometimes) it is perfectly normal to use more colorful language. Sometimes things ARE stupid, don't you think?"

M: "No, I don´t think things ARE stupid. I think stupidity is in the eye of the (arrogant) beholder. I do believe that it is perfectly normal to use colorful language, and that is why it is perfectly normal for people to abuse each other, destroy relationships and waste energy in fruitless arguments. I also find it is perfectly normal for companies to collapse because arrogant bullies cannot work together."

* * *

R: "I have seen people abuse your approach by simply refusing to hear any criticism, regardless of language choices, dismissing it as lack of understanding on the part of others. So, while I am with you on humility, I do have my concerns about the philosophy behind your approach."

M: "I have seen people abuse this approach refusing to hear any criticism as well, but I don't follow your logic. I have seen people hit each other with hammers. That doesn't imply that I have concerns about the philosophy of hammering. I propose we focus our concerns on the people refusing to hear criticism rather than on the respectful approach to conversations. Would that work for you?"

Edited by: Lawyer Asad

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