Your heart beats faster, you breathe more quickly, your blood pressure is zooming, and you are apt to perspire. If you are exercising, you probably would welcome these physical responses as a sign of a good workout. Your system is on track, and you are on your way to getting in shape. But if you’re giving or taking criticism, they are a sure sign that you’re probably about to get bent out of shape and derail yourself from the track of success.
For many of us, criticism evokes strong emotions, particularly anger, when we receive it and anxiety when we give it. These emotions — fueled by negative self-statements — intensify and speed up our physical arousal system to the point that it becomes disruptive to our thinking.
If your arousal is not checked, you lose your mental agility. If you are the recipient, you automatically lock out the criticism. If you are the giver, you become rigid, and forceful in your delivery.
In either case, not being able to stay relaxed when you are giving or taking criticism will prevent you form staying focused when the heat is on. This is when criticism turns ugly.
On the other hand, if you can stay cool and calm during the criticism encounter, you will be able to deal with the situation more effectively because you will prevent your emotions, in the form of defensiveness, from getting the best of you. Instead you will be able to appraise the situation accurately and respond appropriately.
There are several actions for you to take that will help you stay cool and calm when you are either giving or taking a criticism. The first is to become sensitive to the physiological responses that tell you you are becoming unsettled. You will be able to use these responses as a cue, a warning that your emotions are beginning to get out of hand. You can then make a conscious intervention to calm yourself, thus allowing yourself to evaluate the criticism for what it’s worth. If you are the giver, your emotional arousal will tell you if you are too angry or anxious to give the criticism.
You can begin to learn how to use your emotions as a cue that things might be getting out of hand by monitoring your physical arousal level in a variety of situations. For example, monitor yourself when you are resting, reading a book, exercising, rushing to get to work, or being criticized. Focus on your breathing rate and heart rate, and feel for how they differ in different situations. You will soon note that your physical arousal system is much slower at rest than when you are in a rush or becoming angry. After a few days of monitoring, you will become very adept at noticing when your body is speeding up.
In a criticism situation, this physical sensitivity will pay off because it will enable you to quickly recognize that you are becoming aroused; this recognition will serve as a cue to calm yourself, perhaps by consciously breathing more slowly. You may also use your increased physical arousal as a signal that it’s time to modify your self-statements, since your getting aroused probably means you are thinking counterproductively.
A second way to stay calm during the act of criticism is to develop a relaxation response, the ability to quickly calm yourself when you desire, even in emotionally distressing situations. Your relaxation response helps you maintain a receptive attitude toward criticism because it keeps emotional arousal at a level that allows you to think rationally.
In a criticism situation, using a relaxation response will probably prevent you from getting angry of defensive. You remain mentally flexible and are able to evaluate as well as give the criticism more effectively.
To develop your relaxation response, first select a relaxation exercise to practice for ten days. One popular relaxation exercise to consider is the tense-relax procedure, which calls for you to tighten and relax the different muscle groups in your body. Start with your calf muscles, and proceed to your thighs, stomach, shoulders, neck and forehead. Tighten each muscle group for approximately thirty seconds and then release it. At the end of the exercise, your body will be in a state of physical relaxation. If this does not appeal to you, select another exercise. The key, however, is to practice the relaxation exercise within these four parameters:
- Be in a quiet environment.
- Be in a comfortable physical position.
- Have the same mental image, key word, or key phrase in mind as you practice.
- Have a passive attitude. Don’t try to relax — let it happen.
After a few days of practicing relaxation, you may conclude that it doesn’t work. You would be right. It takes ten to fourteen days to develop a relaxation response, just as it takes two weeks before you start to see the benefit of any exercise program.
Staying cool, calm and collected during a criticism encounter isn’t the easiest thing to do, but if can do it, you will find the power of positive criticism to be quite relaxing.