Dealing with Naysayers

Post Written By: Sara Hunter, Wellness Advisor, OITE

The progress of knowledge is predicated on the development of new ideas and hypotheses that undergo intense scrutiny in order to be validated. This process is important. But that doesn’t always mean it’s easy. 

We all know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this scrutiny – to have our work be harshly criticized or our ideas or goals be completely shut-down. It’s uncomfortable, disappointing, and at times even anxiety provoking as it can spark unhelpful thoughts of self-doubt and disillusionment around our work. So, in order to sustain in this field, how can we better equip ourselves to take the hits of naysayers without letting it get us down?

Consider the source: Not all critics should be treated equally. Feedback from a PI, a parent, a colleague, mentor or boss all can take on different meanings and have a different impact, depending on the context. Sometimes people around us question our ideas because they want to protect us from failure. Other times they are genuinely interested in the direction we’re going but see some holes in our initial logic. Navigating these nuances can clarify the intent behind criticism and ultimately, be helpful in deciding if we want to take it or leave it. 

Find the kernel of truth: Be careful not to demonize the person providing criticism, even if it’s poorly delivered. This may mean working on your own relationship around conflict and stepping back from your impulse to take feedback so personally. Even if your initial impulse is to reject or ignore the naysayer, try asking yourself, what parts of this alternate opinion could be useful to consider? Maybe nothing. But, either way, it’s important to remember that negative feedback isn’t a reflection of your intelligence or worth. It simply could be another way of looking at an idea. 

Explore how your own inner critic may be magnifying the message: Naysayers have a way of activating our own internal dialogue of critiques and put-downs. Become aware of how you talk to yourself, especially in times of stress. Are you your worst naysayer? Explore what cognitive distortions you tend toward when this starts to unfold so that you can interrupt it quickly with more helpful, objective responses. You can do this by pausing before responding to yourself or those giving you feedback by taking a deep breath (or several deep breaths). Note what thoughts and feelings may be rushing through you in reaction to this naysayer, and instead of following those thoughts and feelings in the moment as if they are the full truth, simply use them as pieces of data in the bigger picture to decide how or if you want to respond. Practice self-compassion by developing helpful affirmations that are reflective of a growth mindset as opposed to distortions that are rooted in rigid thinking. 

Let it roll: Striking a balance between remaining open to feedback without being too porous can be difficult. However, when we can embrace intellectual humility – a practice of recognizing our limitations from a healthy, non-judgmental standpoint – we are more apt to let unhelpful critiques of naysayers roll off us while absorbing the more helpful feedback of supportive mentors, PIs, and colleagues. If you find yourself in the company of naysayers often, consider setting boundaries around the time and place when critiques are given so that you’re not constantly absorbing these hurtful hits. 

Respond with respect: Diversity of opinion is important for the progression of good ideas. It’s important we invite feedback, not avoid it, but we can’t always control how this feedback is delivered. And unfortunately, all too often it’s delivered poorly. This is out of your control, but your response is not. Thank the person for taking the time to share their response and ask for more clarity if their message was vague. Usually this means asking for specific suggestions of improvement or adjustments in your work. If you’re not sure how to react in the moment, simply let them know you will sit with their feedback and decide how you are going to move forward after further reflection. 

Believe in your ideas and create a safe landing place for them to develop: Ideas need space and time to grow. Finding people you trust to share your thoughts with is important in your professional development so that you can approach your ideas from a place of curiosity and openness as opposed to constantly fighting your self-doubt or fear of being torn down. But this doesn’t mean seeking out people who will just tell you what you want to hear, never challenge you or give you feedback. This means surrounding yourself with thoughtful, self-aware, and intellectually curious people who bring with them different backgrounds and perspectives that can enrich your ideas.

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