Be Criticism-Resilient with NVC Skills
Did you ever receive scathing criticism from one of your clients, customers or students? And worse, that person cc’d your boss, without asking for your consent? If so, and if you’re anything like me, I guess you didn’t find it pleasant or easy. It very recently happened to me, and I wanted to handle it with grace and resiliency. My inner world was in a state of chaos for a few days, yet like any time I’m far outside my comfort zone, it was an opportunity for much learning and growth. I hope that sharing my process based on Nonviolent Communication (NVC) can lead to inspiration . . .
It was the third of a nine-session course for adults. A student who had been ill was in attendance for the first time. Within 20 minutes, she left the room, and during the break, she came to me with her critique and clear decision to step out of the course. I listened as best I could (without being defensive) and accepted her decision. To my surprise, she decided to stay for the second half and proceeded to write notes with observations about my teaching. Holy moly, was this challenging! I so wanted to contribute as best I could to the rest of the group, yet felt quiet distracted and unfocused.
Afterward, she asked me if I would like to receive her full feedback. I double checked with myself before saying yes . . . I wanted to be sure that I would find the courage to read it and respond. This was taking a LOT of effort on my part, yet my integrity was guiding me to “walk my talk” as the course is about connecting ways of communicating (based on NVC)!
Up until this point, I was managing things quite well, I thought. But later that day, when she sent her email with feedback (mostly with painful comparisons), it arrived not only in my inbox, but also that of the owner of the company for whom I teach the course! He isn’t exactly my “boss,” but he trusted me and my training capacity enough to ask me to teach the course.
Allowing My Emotions
At his point, I lost my cool. I felt ANGRY! I needed a lot of space to process before I could possibly react to the email. Though I was feeling quite terrified of the idea, I wanted to a chance to communicate with my “boss” . . . to present my side of the story, be heard with how it was for me (and other students who expressed satisfaction!). Yet he wasn’t available to read/respond to the email for two whole days, giving me plenty of time to suffer, mostly developing in my head a worst-case scenario: he will believe her story as “the truth;” he and my other colleagues will lose all trust in me; the student will spread rumors; my career will go down in flames . . .
Yet, I didn’t want to suffer for two solid days, knowing this snowball story of mine would grow so big that I’d surely be crushed under the weight of it. So I took several very conscious steps to help get me through this process, and they looked like this, starting the moment the critique came . . .
Skill # 1: Connecting with Myself
Self-connection in communication was a new concept for me when I first started to learn NVC. It’s a very empowering skill . . . to be with myself in a conscious way as opposed to being on automatic pilot mode. So, before speaking to the student (during the break when she took me aside to tell me how I was f-ing up as trainer), I took a few moments to connect with what was alive in me, following these steps:
- I told myself two important mantras I’ve learned work for me in the face of judgment or blame: “Cara, you didn’t do anything wrong” . . . “You are doing the best you can and it is enough.”
- Then I noticed my feelings—SURPRISE and FEAR—and let them be, without judging them, and this allowed me to rather quickly move on to the next step . . .
- I focused on my intentions, or my needs, longings, what’s really important for me as trainer. I knew in that second that what I wanted most was to contribute to a safe learning environment, which grounded me.
Skill #2: Asking for (Free) Support
I didn’t for a minute imagine I would be able to navigate this ordeal effectively or efficiently all on my own (my old way of dealing with criticism or other difficult things). So I took several steps in getting the support I needed . . .
- I knew before the session ended, that I could use some extra information, perhaps best in the form of reassurance. I couldn’t let it end without hearing more voices. If I left believing that I hadn’t contributed anything to anyone, I would have died on the vine. So the first way in which I asked for support was to ask for feedback from the other students, and I got what I was hoping for, e.g.
- “I got a lot of clarity from this session”
- “I experienced a lot of community, connection, safety”
- “I really experience your humanness, Cara, and it gives me safety to just be me, too”
- After receiving the email full of criticism only, I asked my colleague and friend to listen to me without advice or sympathy, and she gave me very safe space for me to air out my surprise and (by then) anger. Later the same day, I shared with her my first draft reply email, and we decided it would be best if I first sleep on it (I was still too angry). That night I didn’t sleep well, but did come to the realization that I was having an “enemy image” of the student, which was not serving me or any future communication with her. (I’m so happy I didn’t send that first email, which would likely have made everything worse!).
- The next day I woke up with a new realization that I was in need of compassion, softness, kindness. I wanted to surround myself with it, because by living my longing, I can more easily act from that place. I asked my husband and children for hugs and kind words. I searched in myself for appreciation by noting things I did that contributed to myself or others. And in three different Facebook groups where I feel safe to express what’s really going on with me . . . I shared vulnerably and requested that if compassion was felt to simply post a heart emoticon. That also did wonders, as I received plenty.
Skill #3: Going for Professional Support (getting full inner clarity)
I refer to this as a skill, because it took me quite some processing (in previous years) about my money blocks before I was willing to pay for professional support. By the end of day 2, I was aware that the steps I had taken so far had helped, but I wasn’t yet out of the woods. By the third day, I was no longer feeling angry about the situation, but had sunk down to what was underneath it: FEAR. I knew that this also wasn’t the place from which I wanted to operate. I decided it was time to schedule a session with a professional whom I knew could help me in a very efficient and effective way to find completion with my process. By the end of this session, I had my full set of needs, or longings in view:
Skill #4: Finding Total Completion
Once my needs were clear to me, it became evident what I still needed to do. I had already taken care of my need for appreciation by asking for feedback from the other students and even from my family members and myself. I developed a few more requests to myself to help me come to total completion. . .
- Stop living out my worst case scenario story and get much closer to reality . . . by asking my “boss” about his reaction to the email. Do I still have his trust or has it faltered? If the latter, is there room for a discussion, for my side to be heard? By the fourth day, I was able to make contact with him, and fortunately, his trust wasn’t at all affected by the email (whew! What a relief!)
- I choose to see this as a growing experience, and definitely feel stronger as a result. The next time I receive such unbalanced criticism, I imagine that I will be more “in my power,” knowing my contribution, my worth, that I’m enough . . . and that I will simply not be liked by everyone. We were not a good match, this student and me, and that’s o.k. She receiving guidance as to which course might be better suited for her.
Grand tip: follow Nonviolent Communication (NVC) trainings
Practically all of the steps I took in this process are due to the skills I’ve learned there. Find out more about upcoming opportunities: