Coping with Critique

These days, when you put anything into the public domain, you can expect to receive critique on it. On the world wide web, the world is watching and many people will be perfectly happy to tell you what they think about what you do. As a writer, a key aspect of my work has been learning how to cope with criticism. Over twenty years I’ve managed to move beyond simply coping with critique, and have learned how to channel it to get better at what I do. Positive reviews are lovely, but they’re not actually much use in helping you improve. As I explained in this blog, as an author it is the negative reviews that you really need to listen to, and to dig through, for any nuggets of critical gold they might contain. Your readers have every right to tell you what they think of your book, or your video, or your training, or your conference. They might or might not be right, in your opinion, but if you block out any negative critique with defensiveness, you miss out on the opportunity to develop and improve.

There are two key difficulties in coping with critique. The first is that this is your ‘baby’ – you spend months or even years writing a book, or organising an event, and it comes to feel like a part of you. It’s very easy to get critique of your ideas confused with critique of you as a person, when your ideas are so closely bound to the thing you have created. The second problem is that people generally have quite fragile egos, and it can feel like an attack on yourself to hear someone flag up any potential issues with what you have done. This is especially so if you are someone in the public eye, because you get so used to positive feedback that it builds up your ego probably past the point which is sensible, and then any negative feedback can feel like an affront. My partner has a very useful reminder for me, when someone has praised me and I am all wrapped up in how wonderful I am at what I do. He says “don’t get too up yourself”. And he’s right.

Last year, I was part of a team of early years educators involved in setting up a conference called Firm Foundations. We did all the work in our spare time. (In fact, pretty much all of my early years work is as a volunteer – my contact with the sector arises out of having been the chair of committee at my local preschool for the last ten years. Most of my paid work is in secondary schools, rather than in primaries or early years settings.) Anyway, after the event was over, we were challenged by a couple of colleagues about the lack of diversity in our line-up. It was easy at this point to become defensive, and to point out that we had tried to get a diverse range of speakers. But that’s not the point, and our defensiveness was not appropriate – the line-up was what it was, and there wasn’t enough diversity. And that was our problem to deal with as conference organisers, rather than being the problem of people who weren’t available to speak, or of people who had pointed it out. We needed to keep trying until it was sorted, not to throw our hands in the air and say “well we tried!”.

Our second Firm Foundations conference is happening shortly, and I am grateful to the people who critiqued us last time round, because it meant that we worked to get a much more diverse selection of speakers this time. But even now, the point is that, if someone were to raise a concern with me again, about another aspect of what we had done, I would have a long hard think about whether there was anything valid in what they were saying. If I didn’t feel there was, then fine, and there would be no need for me to become defensive about the challenge. But if I did think they might have a point, then their critique would be incredibly helpful. Because we can only improve at what we do, if we are open to the possibility that we might not always get everything completely right.

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