Embrace Criticism to Improve Self Development

by Marc Winitz

This is a series on the martial arts principle of giving criticism. On a true personal development level there is simply no way to progress in whatever you are doing without getting some type of feedback from others. I find this interesting because while there is a large and ever growing personal and professional coaching community, many people are simply looking at ways to self improve. But this is often done in a vacuum.

One of the key premises of martial arts training, especially in a traditional karate dojo, is to both give and receive feedback to others during the training process. In a dojo (training hall), we refer to this as “giving criticism” but it simply means providing direct and candid feedback to those you are training with. It is a true bi-directional learning process of Sharing Knowledge, one of the 6 Elements. It ss never meant to be personal or vindictive. Most importantly it is done for the benefit of both parties.

Your Performance is Who You Are
There is a lot to be learned on a personal development and leadership level outside of karate training by understanding this process. In a martial arts context giving criticism is a normal part of the exchange and it is expected by all involved. It is a process that looks at who you are, both physically and mentally, directly at a given moment in time with all involved understanding that their obligation is to point out what they see about what you are doing. This is usually not the case in our normal and everyday lives. Quite frankly most people shy away from criticism or pro active feedback and they really get it. But they shouldn’t.

Personal development, personal and business relationships and virtually any other human interaction we undertake can benefit from a more pro-active effort towards receiving solicited outside views more frequently.  This notion of “feedback” gets back to the concept of centered truth” as I have written about here. I would argue we should pro-actively seek out criticism much more often than we do. Solicited feedback is a powerful tool because outside of a structured environment (e.g. training in the martial arts) we can all be selective in how we give and ask for critiques (assuming we do it all).

“Most development and learning in martial arts comes from the process of giving and receiving criticism about one’s performance. It can work the same way in a self development framework.”

The Criticism Process
On the training floor the functional process is simple. When watching a karate student perform black belts look for areas that can be improved upon, regardless of how well the student is performing. We are expected to analyze and comment on the student’s performance that we see in that particular moment. A criticism can be based on anything the student is doing such as:

  • Technique – An executed action, such as a kick or punch, for example;
  • Physical Characteristic – Assessment of posture, eye movement or balance;
  • Mental  Acuity – Observations about the students mental state, such as a “suki” (e.g the mind freezes and the student temporarily forgets what they are doing or makes a mistake).

This same process can be “lifted” into a self development context. In Western culture receiving “constructive” criticism is valuable but it assumes that both sides are “open” to the process. And that is the key difference between an Eastern application and a Western approach. It’s different in a martial arts context (and more powerful) because not only is it expected that you “take the criticism” given to you by others but you also must acknowledge the person that gave the criticism. Then you must demonstrate in front of others over time that you are improving on what has been said to you.

A Teaching Mechanism – Learn About Yourself
The “art” of giving criticism is one of the most practical and beneficial parts of karate training. It can also be used in every day life situations. Ultimately the process of criticism is focused as much on learning about yourself as it is about helping another person. Unfortunately this principle is sorely misunderstood in a Western world. The reason is that in a martial arts training context it is expected. All sides accept the fact that they will be required to criticize others as well as receive them. But the real value in criticism process isn’t just having someone else analyze what you are doing and provide you feedback about what can be improved and how. There is tremendous value in being the provider of criticism if done appropriately because it:

  • Requires that you intently analyze the actions of another person – so the process is as much about putting you in a position to watch someone else so that you can make useful and productive comments for improvement, versus just commenting for the sake of talking;
  • Pushes you to think through what you are watching and confirm you know how to do (or not do) what you are seeing. In short you are confirming your understanding of the topic/action/activity because the comments being made are very specific;
  • Dictates how you deliver the criticism. It needs to be simply stated and “actionable” for it to have value to the person receiving the comment. If you can’t succinctly articulate a comment on improvement, it is likely you don’t understand the criticism you are making, and the student won’t either.

Don’t Let Personal Feedback Become “Personal”
Obviously the criticism process I am describing here is specific to a martial arts environment. But the lesson is not. Anyone can benefit from the process of analyzing personal or work performance, attitude, and the ability to act (or not) in our daily lives. By watching and offering comments to others you will be moved to analyze yourself and assess what you are doing correctly, as well as what you can improve. And by proactively asking for others to provide you feedback (criticism), as long as you can separate out your request and the feedback you get from being personal, there is a much that can be learned since you can’t always truly look at yourself. Certainly not the way others see you.

Paul Worswick, a personal development and leadership coach, who writes the blog Diary 4 Life, did an excellent write-up on dealing with criticism that was the inspiration for this post. My mission at Black Belt Guide is to look at all of the aspects developed over years of Karate training and relate them to personal development and leadership ideas. That is after all the real purpose of studying martial arts: a path of self development.

In the next post, I’ll discuss the process of how to give and receive criticisms, based on a martial arts methodology but translated to a practical personal development context.

How do you feel about giving or receiving feedback (criticism) to others as a way of expanding your own personal development?

Thanks for training with me.

Photo credit courtesy of Robbert van der Steeg

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