By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
There are two extreme ways of dealing with criticism: President Trump’s or Pope Francis’ style. What’s the ideal roadmap?
Watching Trump at the Republican National Convention, you can see he is an expert in meanness, belittling, and attacking his opponents. At news conferences, he’s always deflecting criticism and scolding reporters for asking questions he doesn’t like. He doesn’t understand that the media is not there to give praise, but to get information by asking questions. Most of the time, he acts like a bully, by saying, “That’s a nasty question.”
It takes maturity and being forward-thinking to accept criticism. I don’t know what’s wrong with Trump’s brain. Certainly, this is not the type of brain I want to have. On the other end of the spectrum is Pope Francis. During his visit to Africa, a French reporter handed him a copy of the book, “How America wanted to change the Pope.” The book explores how American conservatives undermine Pope Francis, according to the New York Times. You would not have guessed the Pope’s response.
“An honor,” he said about Americans’ disapproval, including issues like migrants and his opposition to the death penalty. Yes, he talked like a saint. Do we have to respond like Pope Francis when confronting criticism? No. But we can learn from his grace, and keep an open mind to engage in conversation with naysayers.
For some reason, our brain remembers the negative more than the positive, according to psychologists. Negative events seem to stay in our brain longer than positive ones, especially when we are sad or mad. I have been in the news business for close to four decades. Readers often remember our smallest mistakes from long ago, as if they happened yesterday. Of course, we have readers who appreciate that we toil every week to come out with the best issue possible in print and online. The fact is, we are as good as our next issue. The same goes for writers, you are only as good as the next story. That’s why we work hard on every single issue.
What can we do to counteract those negative emotions when faced with harsh criticism? Neurologist Daniel G. Amen, author of “Change our brain, Change our life,” has found there are programs to train your brain to be less depressed.
What have I learned about receiving and giving criticism? I would not recommend Trump’s way because you will never improve if you are defensive. Let’s start with how to criticize.
How powerful men judge
When Bill Gates founded Microsoft and became its chairman in his early 20s, he was young, powerful, and arrogant. He had no patience for people who were not on his level. If he didn’t like the ideas presented at meetings, he would quickly dismiss them, “That’s the most stupid idea I have ever heard.”
You can say he’s honest, blunt, or mean. But those words wound and shatter confidence, and burn bridges. Now, Gates is humble and speaks with diplomacy. What he does, is to connect his ideas to those who have proposed ideas and expand on them.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has his own style of rejecting ideas. It’s slightly better than Gates’ early years, but it’s similar to pouring cold water on his people. A team of more than 10 software engineers had worked days on a proposal. When they finally got a meeting with Bezos, they were excited. He came in and read the proposal. In five minutes, Bezos got up and left. He said nothing.
The engineers never heard back. Silence meant “No.”
A simple act of thoughtfulness
Bezos may have felt like he was too important to waste time explaining why he didn’t like the proposal. At the very least, he could have said before he exited, “Folks, thank you for trying.” Or have an aide to tell his people, “Keep innovating.” It’s a simple act of thoughtfulness and encouragement.
I have learned a long time ago that if you want to criticize, say something nice first. Praise whenever you can so that when it’s time to criticize, it balances the negative.
Say thank you
We journalists learn not to take things personally. We love letters to the editor, which condemn, scold, and tease us. And we appreciate critics who mean well, and help us to improve.
“Feedback is a gift,” states The Chief Happiness Officer Blog. That’s great advice.
Sometimes, those ideas from our critics are not new. We have actually thought about implementing them, except it might be too costly or impractical to do so with a small staff. Still, we love to hear from our readers and critics. When they take the time to give us feedback, we thank them. We never perceive them as enemies, but folks who care about our wellbeing.
Admitting mistakes is not a sign of weakness
Trump thinks that admitting mistakes makes you a loser. This win-lose mentality practially paralyzes not only his thinking, but his team. How can you make the best decision when you are biased? How can the team function effectively when you are allowed to say only good things and not the truth?
Clarity is an asset and enhances problem-solving. Don’t be like Trump and get defensive when you hear criticism. Is it so important to be right all the time? Sometimes, it’s best to keep your opinion to yourself. After critics give their comments, you may ask, “How can we move forward?” Or “I haven’t thought about that. I will keep that in mind.”
Don’t take it personally
The worst thing you can do is react like Trump, and take everything personally. Remember what Pope Francis said, “An honor.”
Just hold your tongue and smile. Breathe before you react. Don’t overreact. Let your brain have a pleasant response. Be grateful. Smile. Tell yourself, it’s no big deal, and you can handle it.
It’s hard to listen especially when most criticisms are negative. The least you can do is to listen and decide if there is merit in the criticism.
Focus on results, rather than getting the credit
Years ago, an elected official said to me, politicians like to get credit in everything they do. Then, she said, “If community members don’t mind who is getting credit, you will get done so much more.”
How does this advice fit into the theme of criticism? In many community projects, people get upset if they don’t get credit and attack people who got more credit. The prize shouldn’t be just who didn’t get enough credit. The real prize is the result. The project got done. The community is working together. The community has been lifted.
If it is our mistake, we will admit it, and print a correction in the Asian Weekly. If it’s not, we find ways for the other party to save face, we have done that.
Decreasing negative impact
As I mentioned earlier, negative experiences remain in our mind longer, as it triggers stronger emotions, such as anger or grief. Bad memories affect our happiness. When we have fewer negative experiences in our lives, it will enhance our total wellbeing and emotional health.
The most important lesson I learned from criticisms is to move on quickly, and not dwell on the blame game. It destroys goodwill from all parties involved. And it will not heal us. How can you do that?
Remember the merits of your critics
Don’t blame other people when something goes wrong. Instead, think of the good these people have contributed to you, your family, or your work. See the good in people. Appreciate them. It is a strength to be able to learn even from your least favorite people. Yes, I learn how not to be like them.
Experience every day with more moments of joy
To counter your bad experiences, several books on happiness suggest you do things to discover and savor small memories of joy and put them in your journal. How can you be depressed when you are blessed with so much in life!
In this pandemic, it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself and dwell on negative criticism. Don’t let that happen to you. Count and write down all the praises you have been receiving. Smile.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.