The Value of Criticism: How Do You Take IT?

We recently completed a week on communication skills and relationship development in my UNM-Valencia "Fundamentals of Human Sexuality" course where I posed the discussion topic:

Do you communicate effectively?
 Explain why/why not and give examples of the techniques that can/do enhance your skills.

A majority of the class responded yes in terms of being patient listeners and felt they gave strong and effective feedback.  But they also all agreed that they did receive criticism well.  Why might this be so?

Here is my personal experience with some unwanted, but life-changing, criticism: 

When I was completing my undergrad in Dance over a decade ago, we were required to take Choreography, as well as each of the eight terms, write two papers on two performances giving our own feedback of other's works.

During my second year I was creating my 1st lyrical solo piece for the spring student dance concert and could not wait to share it with the choreography class.  The music I chose was Ray Charles' "Georgia on my Mind" and the lighting rose and set like a sun on the horizon. I wore a long, sleeveless lavendar lycra dress that subtly reflected the light.  The theme was the beauty of rising in the morning, enjoying and experiencing the day, and peacefully nodding off to sleep to repeat it all again.

During the class rehearsal, the flooring was an old basketball court (Carlisle Gym's South Arena prior to the theatre renovation) and I had myself with my lavendar dress and single song.  The closing applause was supportive and my relief auditory.  When the circle of feedback began and you couldn't wipe the smile off my face.  I felt I had nailed it all. 

But one graduate student kept looking quizzically at me and finally said, 
"So you are from Georgia?"
"No," I replied.
"So what happened to you in Georgia?"
"Nothing, I just love the rhythm and tone of this song."
"So nothing about your piece is specific to Georgia, but Georgia is repeated throughout your piece and completely unintentional?"
"Yes," I nervously replied.  
He said, "Well, be prepared for everyone to think you are from Georgia."


Darn it all, he was spot on.  My huge oversight was embedded in my song choice.  I could use the instrumental version, but everyone can agree Ray Charles IS the song.  I could except the lyrics and make up a story about traveling to Georgia, I could have been a girl named Georgia, but that just wasn't in my nature.  His criticism was unnerving because for this moment in time, I deemed it unalterable.

And that is how my unaltered piece went.  I loved the performances and then explained individually to hundreds of people afterward that "No, I am not from nor do I have a story to share about Georgia.  Sorry."

Fast forward ten years later: I NEVER choose a song without listening to every single word and confirming that it agrees with the intention, definition, and explanation of the population I'm presenting it to and with the content I'm adding to it.  I am so grateful for the feedback.

I deeply value choosing the right song for events like "March for Babies" with March of Dimes, an audience over a thousand that is all connected to someone's story of birth, premature death, and complications of it all, but most importantly the joy of working to make things better for the next generation of families.  Certainly not on my radar as a young undergraduate.

The crux of criticism: There is usually nothing to be done for the event in which you receive a critique.  The benefit comes in how you make changes to your future.

A bonus question to my students (and readers) in the future: 

What criticism in your life have you embraced and how has it enhanced your life?

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