In a truly beautiful letter to his daughter Yolande, Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois extolled the virtues of being uncomfortable.
Yolande was headed to a new school halfway around the world from the neighborhood and people she knew. It was years before women had the right to vote, and decades before the Civil Rights Movement.
Du Bois knew she would have more than a few fish-out-of-water moments. Instead of trying to shield her from them, he asked her to revel in them:
Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bed-room. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul. Above all remember: your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.
I am no W.E.B. Du Bois. I have neither his fortitude nor his stunning way with words. What I do have, however, is a small history of uncomfortable experiences that have made me stronger, and an endless sea of animated GIFs through which to illustrate those experiences.
Here are a handful of uncomfortable situations in which you should take De Bois’ advice and “Take the cold bath bravely.” You’ll be better off as a result.
Brace yourself. It’s about to get awkward.
1) Learning to Take a Compliment
Tell me if this sounds familiar: You work exceedingly hard. You’ve honed your skills. You know when you’ve done great work and take a quiet pride in it. And yet, the moment someone verbalizes it in the form of a compliment you can’t seem to string two words together. Instead,you revert into one of the following:
- The babbling-response.
- The self-deprecating response.
- The total and complete blackout.
That nonsense has to stop. Here’s how to take a compliment:
- Realize that someone is paying you a compliment.
- Let them finish.
- Seriously, let them finish.
- Take a breath.
- Smile and say “Thank you. That’s really good to hear.”
- Move on in the conversation. Don’t over-explain. Don’t undercut yourself. Just thank them sincerely and move on with a question about how their work is going.
Why is this so hard? According to a study by Acknowledgment Works, nearly 70% of people associate embarrassment or discomfort with the process of being recognized. Sometimes, this response is caused by the dissonance we feel when someone contradicts our own self-doubt.
But that doesn’t explain why people who are genuinely proud of themselves still balk at hearing that same praise from others. For those people, it often comes down to a learned-response. In other words, you are awkward when you receive compliments because I am awkward when I receive compliments — or, if not me, then your mom; your co-workers; your icons. We’re all making each other squirm.
One way to turn that discomfort on its head is to realize that the compliment has more to do with the person giving it than with you. “When someone is complimenting you, they are sharing how your actions or behaviors impacted them,” explains Business Psychologist Mark Goulston. “They are not asking if you agree.” So don’t rob them of that moment.
2) Taking Critical Feedback
This one stings sometimes, but it’s important. Learning to hear criticism without turning your back to it can be one of the most fortifying achievements of your career.
Think of critical feedback as a cheat sheet. In giving you direct feedback, your manager or colleague is giving you a shortcut — your own personal konami code — to becoming better at your job.
Sometimes, even with the best intentions, taking feedback well can be a struggle. Your impulse will be to protect yourself; to get defensive, or stop listening. So, be conscious of it. Much like accepting a compliment, take a breath when you realize critical feedback is coming your way. Listen to it all without interruption. Write down what you can. Then, ask questions to make sure you’re interpreting it right.
3) Giving Critical Feedback
The only thing worse than taking critical feedback is giving it. I’ve written about this before: Whether you’re a manager or a friend, feedback is an opportunity to help someone get better. Don’t waste it. Good coaches give feedback directly and with respect. Don’t try to soften the blow or talk around the feedback. Doing so may make you feel better but it will only serve to confuse them.
If you’re struggling to be direct, try one clear line followed by detail. For example, “John, what you’re doing isn’t working. Let’s talk through why…”
In addition, feedback is always most constructive if accompanied by recent concrete examples. Telling someone they have a bad attitude isn’t helpful — it’s far better to point to a precise moment in which that bad attitude showed up, and then explain how moments like that can become detrimental in aggregate. Ultimately, knowing how to improve is as important as knowing what to improve. The person receiving the feedback should leave the conversation feeling empowered to change, not broken down. (Here are some more tips on how to give negative feedback without sounding like a jerk.)
4) Admitting a Mistake
You know that moment right after you realize you’ve accidentally made a mistake? You know, that moment when the dread plummets into your stomach in one sweeping motion? Uncomfortable doesn’t even begin to describe it.
However, even that can be turned around. The most effective way to replace that sinking feeling in your gut is to assess the situation and take action. Ask yourself:
Is it immediately reversible?
On my last blog post, I had a glaring typo. This was not some extra spacing after a period, this was a blatant blemish smack in the middle of my post. And I missed it. Thankfully Claire Autruong caught it and let me know via Twitter so I could edit the post before it was too late. Claire is my favorite person of the week. (Incidentally, she is also a full-stack freelance marketer — inbound certified and nice as can be — if you’re looking.)
Who should know?
Whom does your mistake affect? Who is in the position who can help you solve it? Quickly scan the list of people that need to know about your mistake and contact them explaining what happened and what you’re doing about it.
What’s your plan?
If the mistake isn’t immediately reversible, you’ll need a plan of action. A good plan is the best antidote to mistake-induced discomfort. Shift from panic to determination as soon as possible, and that discomfort will subside.
5) Getting in Over Your Head
Of all the uncomfortable moments, getting in over your head is probably the one most worth pursuing. Sure, it’s a little scary , and there’s always the chance of failure, but nothing stretches you more or makes you more creative than having no idea what you’re doing.
So how do you put yourself in an over-your-head style situation? Raise your hand. When there’s a project no one wants, step up. When there’s a problem that has existed for years, have at it. Then break it down. Take big challenges and tackle them piece by piece. It may not always be fun, but you will almost always be better for the effort.