George Lucas Educational Foundation

Disarming Your Critics

Disarming Your Critics

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How do you disarm a critic? After years of trial and error, I have developed a simple strategy for working with people who rail against my leadership- I tell them with forthright honesty how I feel about their work just as they have told me about my work. I wasn't always comfortable with the difficult conversation that comes from telling someone you don't like the way he operates, but with enough years behind me (22 at the time I write), I have come to realize that the most effective and expedient way to move forward in a relationship with a naysayer is to foster a direct and open conversation about one another's perceptions. Former President Ronald Reagan shied away from confronting his opposers or subordinates who needed a good "talking to" says biographer Lou Cannon. He injected humor (not sarcasm) in the conversation. Cannon says, "[He realized] humor was a wonderful tool for deflating political opponents and sidetracking their most significant assertions." Leaders who project an air of strength (Reagan's foreign policy sought to achieve "peace through strength" and, as Cannon points out, his "cowboy" persona pervaded public perception) are not always at home with confrontation. I am not a funny person and so choose to tackle my opponents by facing off with them by being candid about my feelings toward them. This is how I disarm my critics.

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Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I think it's always a good plan to have a "sandwich" plan with critique. Say something nice, get your hands dirty in the middle, close on a positive note. I also think you should never bring up problems unless you have some constructive suggestions for solutions to offer as well.
I'm really okay with criticism, but I want it to be meaningful and specific. If someone says "I have a problem with the way you approach X" then I ask how they would prefer me to solve the problem in the future, and perhaps give them reasons around my thought process. Often that leads to better understand on both sides, which should be the goal of any confrontation really- work the problem and resolve it, don't dissolve to ad hominin attacks or mere defensiveness.

Marisa's picture
ELL Teacher for K-4 Students

I find it hard to stick to a "sandwich plan" simply because it seems like critics always want to keep you in the middle. I do agree, however, that we should try to end the conversation on a high note to try and quell the desire for the critic to run off and carry their negativity to others. I think many critics just want to know that they are being heard. One way I do this is by telling them what I hear them saying and acknowledging it (whether I agree or not). Then, from here, I can give my own viewpoint. I want my critics to know that I am aware of what they are saying and yet inform them that this is still how I feel. Plus, by reiterating for my critics what I understand them to be saying, it opens up the opportunity for them to make clear any assumptions or misunderstandings I had in what they were trying to communicate.

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Disarming a critic makes it sound like you always assume they're wrong. As a teacher, I value educational leaders that are willing to take my professional opinion even when it doesn't match up with theirs and to then have an honest conversation about how they differ. Sometimes I get convinced, sometimes I do the convincing, sometimes we agree to disagree.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I agree with Dan- it's amazing how my stance (be it defiance, collaboration, or confusion) impacts the way the conversation goes. My critics can also be my teachers- but only if I allow them to be. Non-judgemental observation of my own responses (physical and emotional) can tell me a lot about what I need to learn, what I'm afraid of, and what I'm clear about. Stephen Covey always said, "seek first to understand, then to be understood." If I can really understand what my critics are saying- not just the words and ideas, but the emotions upon which those ideas area placed- than I can make better choices about my own beliefs.

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