Dealing With Criticism

I, like everyone, else have been criticised at work. Sometimes fairly; sometimes not.

Everyone is susceptible to the negative effects of criticism. However, people with Asperger (AS) may be more sensitive to criticism than most; it can also leave them, as a result, feeling vulnerable.

I have thought hard about why I may be more susceptible to criticism than most as a consequence of my AS. Often it has been not the criticism itself, but how I have perceived or thought about it or the related situation.

As people with AS have a logical mode of thinking, what is deemed unfair or “unacceptable” or unjust criticism can be very hard to relate to or come to terms with.

Take, for example, the not uncommon (because of reservedness that may make one appear aloof) accusation that you are arrogant, a typical response may be to say “they have no right to say that about me”. The person has acted in a way that is inappropriate from the Asperger perspective; in other words, they have been unfair.

For someone with AS however, this may be problematic as relating to the [unjust criticism] is illogical. As a result, such scenarios have emotional and behavioural consequences; they can be hurtful and so lead to withdrawal.

In a business context these situations occur frequently and, as a person with Asperger, I have found it necessary to deal with them develop alternative responses. One way I have learnt to approach these situations is by reframing any response. To begin with I try not to react emotively; reflect on the criticism, gauge if there is any truth in it and then, reply in a more measured, less confrontational fashion. Doing so, helps reduce the emotion in me.

To begin with, I try to ask myself: “why does the other person think that: – is it something I have said or done?” Such a response is more constructive and involves enquiring as to why the person feels that way. This not only negates a common AS trait – a confrontational response which may antagonise the other person – but also enables me retain better control of my emotions and behaviour.

The key benefit is that it helps to keep communication going which, in turn, then allows me to decide whether to respond to any criticism in a sensitive or robust way.

There are a number of ways criticism can get upset me. Most are common, as for many other people also, but are possibly exacerbated by AS personality traits. Firstly, is a greater innate need than most to be approved of by other people. Whilst everyone desires approval, the inner doubts associated with being “different” in some way, may mean that it is heightened for someone with AS.

Believing one needs or must have approval, however, places one in a subordinate position. It may insinuate, for example, that you have done something wrong and, as a person, you are less than worthy as a result. The risk is that a person will then do almost anything to be accepted – albeit sub-consciously.

It is the meaning that is attached to any criticism that is important, not necessarily the criticism itself. People who continually seek approval will feel inferior in some way because they believe it. I know that personally, I have tried at times too hard to be liked for these reasons and, in business that is not always compatible.

I have found that it is essential to stand up to criticism, no matter how uncomfortable it feels, so as not allow it to become internalised and compromise my self acceptance. De-coupling my actions from myself allows me to remain problem focused and not allow my heightened sense of right and wrong – and related emotion – to cloud my response.

For example, if my work is challenged, asking “what aspects of my work performance need to change if I want to be effective?” can help shift the focus away from me to the actual criticism made by the other person. By focusing on the problem, not them, I reduce the potentiality of antagonising them.

The key point for me is the difference between needs and desires. Needs are based on demands: I must be accepted by others to have self-worth. However, this usually means there is concern or anxiety about what others think. Desires are preferences: I’d like them to think positively of me, but it is not essential. The latter is what is relevant in business.

Not getting approval is different to getting disapproval. Having AS, means that this is something that has not always been easy for me to understand. To perform effectively I have needed a degree of approval from higher up the management echelons.

However, I have come to accept that being universally liked in business is rarely achievable, especially if one works in higher, more senior positions; ones that call for difficult or even unpopular decisions to be made.

Defensiveness is another typical response to criticism. Instead of facing the criticism and evaluating it, people rationalise their behaviour or become emotive. Often, however, this avoids confronting the truth.

I have found that my AS typically means I take this approach – but sometimes in an even more pronounced fashion. Because I am conscious that my demeanour can be misinterpreted negatively by others, I sometimes take the unjustified view that I could be, at least, partly to blame. This has resulted in me adopting a defensive stance to criticism and accepting that which is unjust.

Often the outcome has been one of anger, especially if any criticism attacks my integrity and, therefore, my self-esteem. This has then manifested itself verbally or in terms of defensive anger.

In the commercial world this is a luxury that I have found I cannot afford due to the potential adverse consequences going forward. The best approach is to remain calm and sideline my defensiveness to allow for rational thinking.

For example, I accept that in business people can – and are – entitled to criticise me and what I advocate, even though I may not like it. Instead, I try to listen to criticism and evaluate it dispassionately. If appropriate, I opt for a behavioural change: either by accepting the criticism as justified or; by rejecting it and being assertive by saying so and focusing on facts not personal objections to counter it.

A key requirement I have found, is not to equate my behaviour automatically with my personality: “I may be introverted or different, but that does not make me any less of a person” for example. In other words, I do not allow myself to accept that my AS is a negative thing.

Another difficulty that I have had to address is the consequence of actions by others I consider to be “uncaring”. My condition has placed upon me the belief that building something worthwhile and people are foremost the important thing, and not business results at “whatever cost”. However, in a business context, this is often not the prime consideration and nobody has special status that exempts them from this fact.

Looking back, I can see that there have been times when I have, perhaps, given the impression of being “holier than thou” when commercial requirements have necessitated otherwise. This has actually induced criticism of me.

Accepting that my natural philosophy of fairness is not shared by others, is the start point for developing a less emotive and realistic response to those who criticise either myself or others in a business context.

Perhaps the criticism I have found hardest to deal with overall is negative criticism. I find this, and people who engage in it, the hardest to cope with cognitively as my logical mode of thinking simply cannot resonate with it. As a result, it can seriously deflate and wear me down.

Typically, I have found that the people who adopt this approach are those that believe that the world should always be their way and who need to belittle or negatively criticise alternatives to ensure they are not questioned.

Related to this, is my belief that there are ways of doing things which are sacrosanct as a consequence of my AS disposition. At times, however, I have refused to accept this.

Interacting with people who constantly criticise, have an autocratic, one dimensional approach involving the putting down of others, is the most difficult challenge in the business world that I have had to personally face. However, constant criticism, I have found, usually says more about the (envious or insecure) source of the comments than about the recipient. Again, the key is accepting this and adjusting to it.

The best way I have found to deal with negative criticism, is to not accept it initially by challenging immediately the other person and their views. The optimal way of doing so is by questioning what they say in relation to others or specific aspects if it. If I am wrong for example, asking “why is that the other manager’s like me, and what I say, but not you?” In other words, I use facts.

The essential caveat is to not allow personal dislike to cloud the issue, something which is often the natural response for someone with AS due to their disquiet about what was said or done initially. Any response should be objective; evaluate the criticism first and then decide: a) if it is true, admit and accept it without self-condemnation of the other person or; b) if it false, refute it using facts and then move on without holding any residual prejudice.

Asperger syndrome invariably involves greater sensitivity to criticism which stems from having lower levels of self-esteem or some inner doubts about ones’ character. In my case, this has at times meant that I have regarded the criticism of others as a justifiable consequence of my condition, i.e. it must therefore be down to me to some degree.

As I have become more aware of my condition however, I have accepted that there are aspects of myself that need to change and which will reduce criticism, and my sensitivity to it. Being less critical of others who do not share my personal views is one example. In business this is, after all, a truism: there will always be different opinions driven, not least, by political considerations.

Accepting other viewpoints’, and the criticism that sometimes accompanies’ them, means listening to people in a rational, un-emotive state. Everyone has shortcomings or areas where they need to improve, so what is wrong if I have also? Once I acknowledge this, accepting criticism becomes easier to cope with.

I have found this point particularly important when dealing with criticism or disapproval where one is conscious of, and concerned and respectful about, a third- party’s opinion of me. In a business context, this is where criticism comes from “important others” or people who hold influential sway within an organisation.

If they are critical of me, the likelihood is that any criticism may not only be possibly justified to a degree, but also that it has the potential to be especially damaging. For someone with AS especially, this is a crucial component in activating the effects of negative criticism in a pronounced fashion. Personally, this scenario has played out in a very damaging way on one occasion. An influential manager criticised me consistently and I accepted it even though it was at many times unfair.

The best way of overcoming this, I have found, requires “self acceptance”, independent of the approval of others and not accepting unjust criticism irrespective of the position of the other person. If a senior manager is being unfair, then I must confront that criticism constructively. Doing so is essential to maintain my self esteem and inner confidence – and my business stature.

If this does occur however, it is also important not to automatically accept the criticism in the face of contradictory evidence that discredits it. In one particularly disappointing instance, an incoming Managing Director held a negative, pre-determined view of me based on hearsay and lack of understanding of the circumstances I was working under.

When he witnessed my actual performance however, he came to the exact opposite conclusion. Though my career has been already damaged, I used his subsequent acknowledgement of my capability as a powerful personal re-enforcement going forward and evidence of my ability.

Work based evaluation – and criticism – will also inevitably occur on an informal basis daily through comments passed by fellow workers or on formal, i.e. performance review occasions. The sensitivity to criticism of a person with AS, may makes them potentially more susceptible to it.

Whether fair or not, I have again found that how I think about any comment or appraisal is the crucial determinant in any response to it. This then enables me to adjust, and come to terms with it.

Among the techniques that I have found helpful in achieving this are are:

* I judge the facts or outcome relating to any criticism – not the person;

* I am specific and factual in any opposing comments I make;

* I try not to dwell on past criticisms or behaviour, but concentrate instead on changes in the present that will bring future improvements to my position and performance;

* I listen attentively to the other person and discern any objections they have about me or my performance;

* I acknowledge any justified criticism that has been made of me, or something I have done, and try to understand what has been said; not just the words per se, but the meaning behind them;

* When responding, I express myself assertively without emotion or anger to achieve a beneficial outcome.

The goal of constructive criticism should be to change the way the job is being done, or to change some aspect of a person’s performance – in other words to bring about a positive change in behaviour.

Constructive criticism is what I can accept and relate to and is what others, I believe, expect of me.

I internally accept that I will be criticised in a business context. Some of it may be directly due to my AS; some of it may not. But by accepting that I will be challenged personally in a commercial context and building appropriate cognitive and practical techniques, I have been able to deal with, and effectively personally accommodate, it.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome