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One simple technique for overcoming the worry of criticism

ksaaskil profile image Kimmo Sääskilahti ・2 min read

Constructive feedback is enormously important for us developers. It helps us become better at what we do in daily work. However, it's not easy to ask for feedback. The biggest obstacle is, in my experience, being worried about criticism.

In this post, I'd like to share a simple technique for overcoming the worry of criticism that I found in Dale Carnegie's How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

In all its simplicity, here's the technique:

Create an internal spam filter for unjust criticism

Unjust criticism is a form of criticism that is not constructive and therefore not helpful. This kind of criticism could be targeted at you as a person or it could be just plain meanly communicated. It could completely ignore the hard work you've done and classify your work as garbage.

Often when we worry about criticism, we're actually worried about receiving unjust criticism.

Imagine you've built a design for software architecture and you want to ask for feedback from your colleagues. One of them has this to say:

"This is an interesting design and seems to get the work done. Have you maybe considered the alternative X? It would have the benefits Y and Z compared to this design. It would have drawback W but I think that would be overweighed by the benefits in our case."

How could anyone worry about receiving "criticism" that looks like this? This kind of feedback could the beginning of a wonderful exchange of ideas and teach both of you something new.

Now imagine one of your colleagues instead told you this:

"This looks too complex to me."

This is at the borderline of being useless criticism. It doesn't provide any useful alternatives and it also doesn't acknowledge any benefits in your proposal. However, there could be a lot to be learned from engaging in conversation so we would probably ask for clarifying comments: why do they think the design is too complex and what would be the alternatives. Again, nothing really to be worried about.

Finally, here's one more example comment:

"Yet another overly complex design!"

This smells a lot like being targeted at you as a person and the overall tone is aggressive. Many of us would probably either feel bad of ourselves or ferociously fight back. However, a better alternative is to use our internal spam filter and classify the comment as unjust criticism. Therefore, we can safely ignore it and look for more useful feedback elsewhere. We could also try and engage in a conversation: maybe the person isn't saying you're doing bad designs after another but that most designs he's seen during their career have been overly complex. But we don't need to.

Your spam filter shouldn't trigger that often: I'd say 95-99 % of criticism I receive is constructive and useful and helps me becoming better at what we do. If you find your filter triggering surprisingly often, I'd say there's either something badly wrong in your workplace dynamics or you're not being receptive to feedback.

Keep your head up. Do your best. Actively seek feedback. Don't worry about criticism.

Thanks for reading, please leave comments if you have any!

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