Don’t Take It Personally!

One of the things I like about living at the beach is the wide variety of restaurants (and, perhaps, the occasional bar, but only for research purposes…). Sometimes, though, the experience can be marred by bad service. It’s happened to all of us.

Inadequate service creates dilemmas about how to dish out criticism. Have you ever thought about how you handle both giving AND receiving criticism?

The next time you’re “out on the town,” notice how you react to poor or questionable service. If you tend to handle criticism well, you’ll probably not leap to the conclusion that the inferior service is personal. Instead, you might look around and see how many other tables the server has at the moment; how well those tables are being handled, and whether a manager or some equivalent is aware of the situation.

I have a friend who owned a restaurant near my office. Occasionally, when I arrived, I could immediately felt the tension. As a result of poor scheduling, or for whatever reason, the servers would be, in restaurant jargon, “in the weeds.” As hard as they tried, service deteriorated and stayed that way. I would sit quietly (maybe at the bar, but only, of course, because it afforded a good view of the room), and watch how some customers reacted. It was a real-life study of how people handled their feelings. If their observation indicated that the server deserved the benefit of the doubt, maybe they would allow a little more time. If it didn’t, the guests who didn’t take it personally made a firm request for better service or contacted a manager. Those who made it “all about themselves” created a noisy scene and ruined the experience for everyone.

To give out criticism well, consider the facts. Go with your head, rather than your initial feelings which, most often, will try to tell you that the bad service is all about you—when in actuality, the facts might not bear that out.

Some of us have a hard time receiving criticism simply because we take it too personally. Contrary to our initial feelings, all criticism is not necessarily a personal attack. And if you think about it, it really doesn’t matter if the criticism is personal! All that matters is whether it’s true, and whether you even care about it. If you agree with the criticism, you might stand to benefit. But if you honestly don’t agree with it, then what does it matter?

If your boss or client criticizes you, then of course you need to listen. Your boss or client is, after all, an important part of your employment. Though listening doesn’t mean agreeing, it does mean at least considering the criticism. But if a casual acquaintance or a stranger criticizes you, then what does it matter? He or she doesn’t even know you. Don’t be a “personalizer.” (We therapists love to make up new words.) Personalizers take everything to heart, while people with a healthier outlook put criticism into perspective.

The next time you’re criticized, especially by a significant other such as a husband, wife, boss or friend, give this a try: First, don’t say anything. Simply listen. Don’t rush to say what you want to say. The criticism could be valid, after all. Even if it’s not, you’ll need time and thought to formulate your reply. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain by just listening. Silence is sometimes power, and listening can represent the power of being secure within yourself.

Second, consider the source. That’s part of putting things into perspective. If you and the critic share completely different attitudes or viewpoints, then the criticism probably doesn’t matter.

Third, smile whenever possible. Smiling keeps the exchange from escalating. If the critic really is attacking you, it will make him or her uncomfortable to see you smile. This is a good thing.

Fourth, don’t interrupt. Interruptions breed interruptions, and you’re not going to be heard, either. That’s a bad thing. Hear the person out, and when there’s a break or a pause, ask, “Can I speak now?” or something like that. Once it’s your turn, hold on to it and don’t allow interruptions. If you’re getting nowhere, it’s OK to “resign” from the conversation. You’re not obliged to have discussions you don’t want to have.

Criticism can be handled rationally. Whether you’re in a situation where it’s not personal (as in a restaurant), or when it comes from someone you know, it’s all in how you look at it.