I admit—I prefer it when people like what I have to say or write. But I know that’s not always going to be the case. When you make a career out of presenting your ideas, criticism is inevitable. I recently gave a presentation to a rather large crowd of 500, and in the written feedback, two people were quite prolific in expressing the ways I had offended them. They didn’t agree with what I had to say.
There is a saying: “A boat that isn’t going anywhere doesn’t make any waves.” This is an apt metaphor. We’re primarily conditioned to get along, be nice, and not to make waves. However, when it comes to progress, the opposite is true. If you’re not offending someone, perhaps you’re not working hard enough or putting enough on the line. Learning—both on our own and with a group—comes from times when we’re uncomfortable. A bit of discomfort causes us to stop and think, stretch, and grow—which is what we need to make breakthroughs, innovate, and discover new ideas.
The importance of disagreement
We might be living in an us vs. them world, but to make progress, we need to learn to disagree. Of course, we need to learn to do this with respect and courtesy—and that means listening to the other person without imposing our own judgment. Civility is the necessary respect and courtesy we must show each other and the willingness to listen to new, uncomfortable ideas.
Putting new ideas out there can be scary for anyone, and people who advance new concepts don’t always do so without fear, they proceed in the face of fear. This is courage. The key is to balance the act of “putting it out there” with respect for your audience. The act of speaking or writing (or living) is always about an exchange with others. Our value is never the result of a vacuum. It’s always the result of making some contribution—whether that be to others, to the group, or to the community as a whole.
What I’ve learned by confronting discomfort
You may disagree with others’ opinions, but you need to appreciate people’s right to think differently than you. Of course, it’s essential to distinguish critique from attack and focus on learning. Some people may just be grumpy and desperate for a fight. These are not the people you need to listen to. You need to listen to those who can give thoughtful consideration to your points and make valid counterpoints. That way, you’ll be learning a thing or two, and you can gain new insights and improve.
I’ve also learned to resist the urge to overcorrect. When we receive positive feedback from 99 people, it can sound like a whisper, yet the negative feedback ends up staying in our brains for a long time. When I received negative comments from the two people out of 500, my husband reminded me those are still good odds.
It’s impossible to please everyone
It took me a while to understand this, but at the end of the day, you cannot please everyone. You can be an articulate, thoughtful speaker, and there will be someone who thinks you fell flat or doesn’t like what you have to say. You can be insightful, and someone will think you were droll. Trying to please everyone, everywhere, is a recipe for a perpetual state of inadequacy. When you have new ideas, you have a responsibility to share them even in the face of fear. Without new ideas, growth and innovation won’t happen.
There’s no way around it—criticism and negative feedback hurt. The key is to try and look at it from an objective viewpoint. Ask yourself, is this something that you can use to improve, or did that person just have a completely different point of view to you?
Examining where your discomfort comes from can help you be a better version of yourself. Just remember to practice self-compassion, and don’t expect yourself to please the masses. While you might not see it, expressing your ideas will end up benefiting everyone, including those who disagree with you, in the long-term.
Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.