A world without mirrors, and the importance of receiving criticism well

Imagine living in a world without mirrors (and, of course, cameras and smart phones sort of count here, too). How would you see yourself?

To catch a reflection of yourself in any sort of reflective surface, such as still water, would have been intriguing, because we cannot see ourselves. So that’s what I look like! Is that really me?

The observer seeing themselves in the reflected image has been an important cultural theme, from the wicked queen in Snow White to Narcissus staring at his own reflection until he died. Now we have the iPhone selfie addicts, anxious for external affirmation of their attractiveness.

But even in an age where mirrors are everywhere, we tend to have an image of ourselves that is often at odds with how others see us. And this isn’t just about our physical appearance; it also concerns our personalities and the way we behave.

In effect, for many of us, we are living without emotional, psychological and spiritual mirrors. We find it very hard to have a true sense of how we appear to others. In the pre-mirror age, presumably we would have allowed others to alert us if our hair was badly out of place, or we had a streak of mud across our forehead, or bits of lunch on our chins.

So, where do we find mirrors that tell us how we are emotionally, or psychologically? The best we can do is to listen to others. We need to attempt to step outside ourselves and take a look in, and to do this we need some help.

This is where criticism comes in. Honest, constructive criticism is one of the most precious things we can receive. Usually, though, we are terrible at receiving it.

The natural tendency of the ego is to defend itself, and this is never more true than when we feel we are being criticised. Some are so acutely sensitive to criticism that they receive it very badly indeed. Most of us smart a bit when we receive it, and our initial instinct is to become a bit defensive and justify ourselves. If we were wise, we would welcome it humbly.

This even applies to hostile criticism. Most things in life are never black and white, and this is true of criticism. Motives are never entirely pure, and constructive criticism often has a bit of something else in it. Occasionally I receive hostile criticism: social media makes this particularly easy for people to dish out because it doesn’t have to be delivered face to face.

I’ve learned in these situations not to respond: never complain, never explain (I got this from Disraeli via my buddy Sam Harrop). I don’t need to defend myself. Even if people make untrue allegations, the best thing is to let these pass and not to respond defensively. They evaporate quickly. But I have also learned (and this is easier said than done) to try to listen. Does this person, hostile as they are, have a point? Is there something I can learn from them? Sometimes, perhaps often, the answer is no. But it is healthy to ask the question, because sometimes they mean ill but are actually providing something valuable. They may be a flawed mirror, but they are a mirror none the less.

Generally, we shy away from criticism, whether it is receiving it, or delivering it. In both instances, we do ourselves and our friends a disservice. There must be a correct balance, though: a magical ratio of praise to criticism. Clearly, there exist some hypercritical individuals who feel the need to complain and nit pick at everything. Living in a palace of mirrors (especially distorted ones) is probably worse than not having any at all. But most of us err the other way.

As a wine journalist, my job is to be constructively critical about the wines that I taste or drink. It is much more comfortable just to say nice things about wines, and not to risk upset by trying to explain why you gave a low rating to a particular bottle. This sort of task has to be done with humility, though. I think winegrowers appreciate honesty when it is delivered in the right spirit, and with the acknowledgement of the uncertainty that surrounds aesthetic appraisal of wine. It’s still difficult to delver and hear, but I think it is appreciated by many. In a world of ever-escalating scores, we need a bit of honesty and tough love.

How do you respond to criticism? When someone has the courage to take the considerable risk of being very honest to you, do you become defensive and attack back? Are you able to step outside of yourself and take a look in, or do you want to smash the mirror? And when it comes to hostile criticism, are you so busy defending yourself or taking affront that you fail to see the pearl in the middle of the poo?

7 comments to A world without mirrors, and the importance of receiving criticism well

  • Hi Jamie. Thanks for this post — it’s very apropos for me. Yesterday, I was on the receiving end of some well-thought-out and well-meaning criticism from someone that I love a lot. It was so so so hard for me — and yet — there was a high degree of truth in it. And I knew it. As difficult as it was for me to not make a million excuses (which believe me, I had all ready to go!), it felt good to listen to it and to be able to respond in a way that allowed me to really hear it (a sign of getting older). Now the work of self-correcting begins. Some ‘tactics’ that I use on both sides of the criticism coin: when receiving, I try to say “I’d like to think about this a little bit before I respond.” It takes me out of being defensive. And when giving criticism, typically I start with “talk to me about what’s happening with…” I’ve been amazed at times when people have shared something that’s going on for them that helps with context.

  • Bryony Wright

    Hi Jamie – I think we Brits are particularly poor at receiving any kind of feedback, both positive and negative, partly because we’re not encouraged to do it and therefore don’t know how of offer or receive it. But it’s essential in order to grow. As an executive coach, one of my key tasks is to hold up a mirror to clients. And when working with teams, we seek to build trust between members so that feedback (given and received in the spirit of positive growth) becomes an essential part of the day to day ways of working. It’s very powerful.

  • Caspar Bowes

    I would prefer to see yous use the words “constructively analytical”. I fundamentally believe that wine is wine; it is not good, bad, better, worse. It can be faulty. It can be under-ripe. It can be low or high in alcohol. But it is just wine. Saying a wine is bad is telling everyone who enjoys that wine that they are stupid, or wrong in some way. It’s part of why consumer understanding on the subject is still woefully inadequate. If we stick to describing wines, rather than judging them, my belief is that we would go a long way to demystifying the subject.

  • Paul Dove

    I miss the critical voice you used to have when it comes to wine, Jamie. All your writing these days seems to be positive whether you’re talking about fine wine, small independents, natural or commercial. Bad wine is never mentioned. OK, you don’t have to resume the polemical voice you had with your ‘90% of all wines are crap’ blog from a few years ago but the occasional steer for us consumers on which styles or trends of wine production you don’t like would be enormously helpful.

  • One of the techniques that we employ in Cognitive Edge workshops (and it is used in other complex systems management methods as well) is called ritual dissent. The idea being that if we make criticism less personal and more about the ideas / concepts, then the individual will take that criticism and learn from it. What do they say – that we learn more from failure than success?
    Unfortunately I cannot think of something similar in wine criticism – though I think we could apply this theory to customer feedback, a concept that I have been trying to develop further for use in the wine industry. It does not completely short cut things – there still needs to be time to “learn” from the market. But if wine companies can understand the criticism in a methodical way, I believe that it may help them improve their offering, or develop styles that the market wanst them to develop.
    You make some very useful points above – thanks.

  • Sean

    Good stuff, you are a terrific writer.

  • philip quick

    I wonder just how coded is your constructive criticism Jamie;many winemakers have to interpret dropped hints by journos and one wonders with your globetrotting, if you adapt your approach depending on the culture?

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