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Dealing with Criticism: A Calvin and Hobbes Lesson

For most of us, improving our skills at dealing with criticism takes some practice.  If we do this in a safe situation in which we will not expose ourselves to potential embarrassment, we can think more clearly about what is going on.  Once we become very clear about how we would like to handle various situations involving criticism, it becomes easier to apply these skills during actual critical moments.

In several previous posts, I presented ideas about recognizing when subtle forms of criticism are occurring.  Let’s apply this skill as we study the following delightful comic:

Calvin and Miss Wormwood

calvin1

First Task: Here we see Miss Wormwood asking Calvin to put his stuffed tiger in his locker. As she does so, is she at the same time providing any negative criticism? Take a few seconds to answer this question and see if you can provide a defense of your position.  After you have completed your answer, I’ll provide mine.

calvin2

My Answer: In my view, Miss Wormwood does provide Calvin negative criticism when she asks him to put away his “tiger” in his locker.  It is an implied form of negative criticism, but negative criticism nevertheless.  My reason is that it seems to me that Miss Wormwood has evaluated where Calvin has placed his “tiger,” she doesn’t like it, and she has decided that she would prefer it to be placed instead in his locker.

You may recall that according to Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary “criticize” means, “1: to consider the merits and demerits of and judge accordingly : EVALUATE”

Because “criticism” is so often associated with an unfavorable evaluation, to avoid confusion, on this blog we have been distinguishing between the various types of criticism by using the word negative criticism for unfavorable evaluations, neutral criticism for evaluations that leave the evaluator feeling neither positive nor negative about what has been evaluated, and positive criticism for favorable evaluations.

Second Task: In the next panel of the comic, Calvin responds to Miss Wormwood’s criticism.  Please take a good look at how he does so:

 calvin a

Below, I’m going to provide the first 4 levels of maturity for responding to criticism.  If you will, take a look at them and see what level best describes Calvin’s response.  After you answer, you’ll be able to compare it to mine:

Four Levels of Responding to Criticism

1.  This level requires displaying one or more of the following:

  • Weeps or sobs with tears or pouts
  • Physically attacks the criticizer
  • Damages property

2.  This level requires displaying one or more of the following:

  • Insults the criticizer (either with words, hand gestures, the sticking out of a tongue, the rolling of the eyes, or smirks)
  • Glares at the criticizer
  • Threatens the criticizer
  • Punches, kicks, or throws an object without physically hurting someone or damaging anything
  • Criticizes the criticizer without first fully addressing the original criticism.

3.  This level requires displaying one or both of the following:

  • Displays defensiveness without directly insulting the criticizer (raising voice’s volume or pitch)
  • Displays a lack of interest either by verbally indicating this, or with nonverbal cues, or complete silence. 

4.  Level 4 individuals listen to the criticizer in a supportive, warm, friendly style, and then make it clear that they fully understand what was said.  Moreover, they put the criticizer at ease by making statements that indicate that the wise learn from criticism.  Some time is spent on showing that they are thinking about the criticism.  If, after thinking about the criticism the criticism is deemed to be correct, they make a statement frankly indicating, “I can see your ideas have merit and I intend to use them in the future.”  If they are not sure if they agree, they make a statement indicating that they are very interested in what was said, plan to think a little more about this over the next few days and then they will be ready to discuss this further.  If, after thinking about the criticism, the criticism is deemed to be incorrect, a statement is made designed to disagree without being disagreeable.  More specifically, a sense of humor, some listening in a caring way and a few smiles help to traverse rough terrain.  As the episode winds down, the criticizer is encouraged to feel comfortable communicating suggestions in the future.

Okay, I’m hoping you will now make your decision at what level best matches Calvin’s response.

My Answer:  I think that somewhere between a level 2 and a level 3 makes sense to me.  Calvin appears to be shouting at Miss Wormwood, which is clearly in the level three description. At the same time it seems to me that he criticizes his teacher’s criticism without first fully addressing her original criticism, which is clearly in the level 2 description.  If I was rating Calvin’s response I would give him a 2.5. His response would have matched a higher level if he would have had something like the following exchange with his teacher:

“Miss Wormwood, I know you like to have everything we bring to show and tell put away after we’re done with that.  How come?

“This way people won’t be tripping over stuff and the class is more neat.”

“Oh, that makes sense.  But I don’t like to put Hobbes in the locker because he might suffocate.  Can you please make an exception today.”

If Calvin had this type of conversation with his teacher, he would have first made sure he understood his teacher’s criticism and then respond directly to what her position was.  Only after doing this, Calvin would have then moved on to respectfully make his request.  Such an approach would have done an excellent job matching the level 4 description.

Third Task:  In the above comic, when Calvin finishes up his response to Miss Wormwood’s criticism, he criticizes her polite request to put his “tiger”in his locker by crying out that “He’ll suffocate!”  Miss Wormwood then responds to this criticism.  Take a good look at her response:

calvin a

I would now like you to see if you can decide what level of responding to criticism best matches Miss Wormwood’s response.  To help you out, you can check the 4 levels that I already provided above, and, below, I’m going to also provide the description of level 5, which is the most mature level.

LEVEL FIVE.  In addition to actions consistent with level 4, people responding to criticism in a manner consistent with level 5 seek ways to use, whenever they disagree with the criticism, a technique known as steering in the direction the criticizer would prefer to go.  That is, rather than just disagreeing without being disagreeable, the criticized person seeks to find a new choice of action that creatively utilizes some aspect suggested from the criticism.  Steering cannot be incorporated into all situations, but it is an additional goal of the most mature individuals.

My Response: As I go about considering what level I would assign her response, first I notice that Miss Wormwood has not hit Calvin or put him down in any way and has heard out what Calvin had to say. Her response makes it pretty clear that she understands Calvin’s concern because she is no longer asking him to put Hobbes in his locker and has instead made a request that may be more agreeable to Calvin. This turns out to be a modified request Calvin can live with. Miss Wormwood has offered this change in her request even though she is unlikely to have agreed with Calvin that his stuffed tiger will suffocate if he is put in a locker.

Miss Wormwood uses steering in the direction the criticizer would prefer to go in coming up with her response. I’m rating her response pretty close to a 5.

Well, I hope you had some fun with this little practice session.  Until next time, may you find all of your criticism experiences a window to wisdom.

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Empathy, Kindness, and Maturity
Responding to Criticism by Crying: Is it a Sign of Immaturity?

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

2 Comments

  1. Calvin and Hobbes was my favorite comic strip. Calvin was a kid with a vivid imagination,so therefore when he was told to put the toy tiger in the locker, he actually believes the tiger is real which led up to the confrontation. Despite the confrontation, and this is where it gets tricky, Calvin must realize despite the fact he holds a stuffed toy, he still must obey the teacher, even though he had a second chance to just put Hobbes under the chair. This is a great metaphor for learning to understand constructive critisism.

  2. Thanks for your comment,Marv. Calvin and Hobbes is one of my favorites as well. I’ll be using some more Calvin an Hobbes comic strips to illustrate ideas in the near future. My Best, Jeff

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