Sunday, September 12, 2010



I just finished running a 6-day Scanner's retreat for 15 people in a beautiful medieval village in Tarn, not far from Toulouse. (I won't take time to explain what a Scanner is but you'll find photos and explanations at I love running these retreats. The people, the inns, the food (!) are all heavenly. But today I'd like to share one specific thing that invariably comes up, usually by the second day. It's one of the major obstacles that prevents us from turning dreams into reality: memories and expectations of hurtful criticism. No one criticizes dreams at my retreats. We figure out how to make them come true. But hidden in the back of everyone's mind are memories of critics past and the dread of critics waiting at home who could have the power to take our dreams away.

But they don't call me The Resistance Whisperer for nothing. I'm on a mission to save the dreams of every dreamer I meet. Now our good Anne-Claire at My American Market, () a wonderful newsletter from her Toulousian business that gets me my peanut butter fix whenever I need it) is giving me a chance to save some dreamers I haven't met by sharing one of the simple methods you can use to identify and protect yourself from destructive critics, in all their guises.


You just got a fine idea for an internet business, or came up with a really useful invention or wrote a great letter to some editor, and you rushed to share your enthusiasm with someone you know -- only to get the wind knocked out of your sails. Instead of becoming excited, your friend/boss/partner/brother tossed off your idea as worthless, even ridiculous. Or they did something subtle you can't quite put your finger on, but your delight disappeared and was replaced by uncertainty or defensiveness, or both.

You've just brushed up against a critic.

Now the shine is off your idea and you're wondering if it's any good after all or if you're just a moron. What you might not realize is that this might be exactly what the critic wants you to do. Because certain critics -- the destructive ones -- are a special breed. They're not just meanies. They're up to something.

If you're someone who is curious and inquisitive by nature and takes a child-like joy in discoveries, you're often the target of critics. Chances are good that you're far from stupid (curiosity is a sign of intelligence). Maybe you're not an expert, but you have a good eye for something fresh and you love sensing potential. You might even have plenty of experience and knowledge to back up your discovery, but that's not always protection. Destructive critics are on a mission, and they're never stopped by their own ignorance.

All critics aren't destructive. Some are wonderful.
Sometimes you'll come across a genuinely constructive critic, and that's a person you want in your life. These people know what they're talking about and sincerely believe that your idea has flaws. Hearing that a favorite idea is imperfect is never fun, but these people are willing and able to explain what's wrong with your idea and either offer some solutions or point you in the right direction. This kind of critic can save you endless time and keep you from traveling up one blind alley after another. If you find someone like this, you're very lucky. The other name for a constructive critic is 'Mentor.' Constructive criticism is a treasure.

But even the most venomous critic will insist he's only trying to help. And who knows, maybe he's sincere and you're just being too sensitive. So how do you tell the difference?

Stop being the Fallen Hero and turn into Sherlock Holmes.
First, try to drag yourself out of the role of the Unjustly Injured and take a good look at the critic. Ask yourself some questions, like 'How typical is their behavior? What's behind it?' In other words, instead of being hurt or angry and fantasizing about how rotten they'll feel when you win the Nobel Prize, it's time to start scratching your head and wondering why they just did that mean thing. Nothing else will protect you from random slings and arrows of outrageous critics.

But you'll need some special techniques because belittling someone who's enthusiastic isn't in your bag of tricks. You have no idea why anyone would want to be a destructive critic.

Step One: allow yourself to suspect that a destructive critic is up to something.
Criticizing requires no special expertise but it does require a special kind of motivation. When someone like you runs up to a destructive critic with your face full of excitement, the critic gets very cranky. Of course, some recipients of your fine idea are innocent enough; they really just don't 'get it.' But you can tell the difference between the innocents and someone who wants to see the joy leave your face in a minute: the latter are always angry.

But what did you do to deserve anger? You meant no harm. How can you make sense of this?

Step Two: look at yourself with the critic's eyes.
There's no other way to understand what motivates people who return delight with anger except to try to see what they're seeing. There's always a chance you've been insensitive or unaware of their mood when you bounced into their world full of jolly news. Maybe they just lost money in the stock market or kicked their toe against a door, in which case you might owe them an apology. But that's not who we're talking about. The people we're talking about people are typically putdown artists. Now, why would they be offended by your happiness? What is it you're doing wrong?

To find the answer, change the question to this: What do they see when they look at you? If you can imagine yourself in the position of a destructive critic watching you bubbling over with a childlike delight, the answer usually hits you right between the eyes: he won't give you the credit you're hoping for because, plain and simple, he doesn't want to. It has nothing to do with the quality of your idea. It has everything to do with his resentment.

Here's how one encyclopedia defines anger: 'Anger is a feeling related to one's perception of having been offended/wronged and a tendency to undo that wrongdoing by retaliation.' That is to say, you had no way of knowing it, but you just offended someone. But why would it offend anyone to see you enthusiastic? After all, you're not kicking his dog or slashing her tires. What's going on?

Because we pick up subtle clues, we know people better than we realize. You can get some amazing insights with this simple exercise:

Discovering a hidden drama
You're going to write a short dialogue between two people. Pick up a pen and on the top line of a blank sheet of paper write your name and after it, start writing down your discovery. Enjoy yourself. Write about your new great idea as if you were a kid. When you're done, move to the next line and write 'Critic:' See if you can become this angry critic and write down your reaction to the first lines of the drama. Then be yourself again, and answer the critic with your typical defense.

If you can keep up the dialogue for a few rounds you'll start to understand the critic's motives better than you ever imagined you could. More often than not, you'll see that you walked into a drama that has nothing to do with you -- but the critic believes it does. He feels wronged and has you mixed up with the culprit who wronged him. Often the critic is jealous. You might have a hard time believing that, because jealous people see you in a way you never see yourself. Sometimes, the critic wants the attention you're unwittingly demanding when you say 'Look at what I found!!' You might understand the critic's viewpoint in a flash. Or you might never know what set the critic off. All the same, looking for the motive behind the blow a critic dealt you is always useful.

What will all this get you?
Even if you don't figure out what made a critic do a really mean thing, you've shifted the attention to the right place. Instead of feeling uncertain, foolish or injured, noticing the oddness of a critic's behavior means you're acting like someone with very high self-esteem. People who keep their self-esteem continue to value their ideas even if a critic has tried to trash them because they sense the critic's anger and protect themselves. That means that by focusing your attention on what the critic is really doing, you might have just saved a really good idea. Too many quality ideas have been thrown into the trash for no good reason at all, just because their inventor got caught in the sights of a critic.

For that matter, a critic who is mean day after day can actually make you sick if you don't protect yourself. So how do you protect yourself?

Summary and Solution:
Good critic or bad critic, you should try hard to respond in the same way: put aside your sensitivity and try to replace it with curiosity. Instead of 'Ouch!' or 'No fair!' try thinking, 'What is this guy doing? And why?' With that in your mind, you'll be safe when you ask a critic the right questions. They're simple enough: ask them, without attitude, what they think is wrong with it, and what they suggest you do instead.

The results can be amazing. Often the critic is exposed: he has no idea what's wrong with it, and no suggestions for what you might do instead. You'll just get a lot of bluster and the critic will know he's been exposed. But even if someone manages to come up with some disdainful answers, all you have to do is nod with interest, even write them down. (That always gets a satisfying reaction. Try it and you'll see.) In any event, you're running the exchange, you're watching them, and your enthusiasm won't be dampened, just put aside and protected for a little while. If someone really tries to sabotage your enthusiasm when you're alert, they'll be disappointed when you stay cheerful. (Disappointing bad guys feels really good.)

Even if the critic turns out to be one of the truly constructive ones, curiosity is called for. You might get some great help launching your idea. In any event, defensiveness would be the wrong move entirely. You never want to make a good guy work too hard when they're of a mind to help you.

Don't be shy about asking the critic, helpful or destructive, aways with respect and curiosity, 'How do you know that?' If your critic is a deflator, he'll give a stupid answer and walk off in a huff. But if you've found a truly knowledgeable critic, you'll get a real answer. If that happens, you've gotten a gift of high value: the attention of someone who can tell you what you need to know -- and might actually enjoy seeing you succeed.

Such people are rare, but if you find any, listen to their words with care. They could change your life. And when you're rich and famous, you can become one of those rare good critics yourself and do the same for others.