Be Open-Minded: Try It, You’ll Be Better for It

November 17, 2017

Washington, DC, my home of thirty years, is riddled with sycophants, suck-ups who tell the boss what he or she wants to hear. I’m so concerned about the practice that when I interview someone for a job on my team, I ask him or her about their ability to speak truth to power. I’m interested in people who are good at telling the boss what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. Such people are hard to find.

Receiving constructive criticism, whether you’re a politician, businessperson, or whistler, is the key to becoming the best you can be. When the boss gives license to subordinates to critique his or her work and the person has the courage to deliver thoughtful and focused suggestions for improvement, it’s a beautiful thing. The mission trumps the ego. It’s not about knocking someone down, but moving toward the goal.

I give the same advice to college seniors who I mentor. If you want real feedback about your strengths and weaknesses, don’t ask your parents. They are rarely capable of being brutally honest. Instead, find people who care about you and have some measure of objectivity, then give them license to constructively criticize. When I want unconditional love and a sweet “atta-boy,” I go to my mom, Frances Ullman. When I seek tough love in the whistling department, I go elsewhere. My mom is not capable of giving constructive criticism; she’s just not wired that way. And that’s okay. The key is to be honest with yourself about what you’re getting from different people.

I credit Betty Buchanan, my long-time choir conductor, with teaching me to turn notes into music. For ten years, Betty was gently blunt in her musical direction. She taught me what great music was, and for nearly thirty years since first singing in her choir. I have worked to achieve in my whistling what she taught us for voice. (Over the years, I’ve observed that many of the best whistlers are also accomplished singers…they are remarkably similar instruments.) As a result, I am my own harshest critic, rehearsing my pieces over and over until my lips quiver and trying new techniques until they are just right. I then try out my pieces on people I know are able and willing to give meaningful feedback. Trying to be the best is a daunting goal that requires constant refinement and improvement.

Betty’s great direction helped me solve a persistent problem I had when whistling a cappella. Since I don’t have perfect pitch (the ability to sing or whistle a certain note in a certain key without a reference point, such as a piano or a pitch pipe), I would sometimes change keys in the middle of a song, especially when jumping up or down the scale. Through Betty, I learned how to notice and correct. Once I started paying attention, my a cappella whistling improved dramatically. Since much of my whistling (including my annual 400 birthday serenades) is solo, key and pitch are critical.

I’ve long been fascinated by people who are wholly uninterested in receiving criticism, constructive or otherwise. They never ask for help, and give you the evil eye or a sharp retort when unsolicited advice comes their way. It’s sad when people’s fragile egos stand in the way of achieving all they are capable of. These folks aren’t necessarily doomed, but their journeys are more difficult than they need to be.

There is a different way. Over the years, I’ve had clients who, within moments of giving a speech or a media interview, ask for feedback, particularly constructive criticism. They are confident yet humble, knowing that everyone can eke out some improvement with a little effort. These are my favorite clients, because helping people grow is challenging and satisfying.

Since no one I know actually likes to be criticized, it does take time and practice to get good at receiving meaningful feedback. For me, there are two main parts: the giver must be able and willing to criticize, and the recipient must be open to receiving it. To fulfill my end of the bargain, I develop goals that I know I can’t achieve without help; then I find people who have my best interests at heart and are competent and honest. It’s magical when both pieces click together. By letting down my defenses and welcoming thoughtful feedback, I’ve achieved far more than I ever imagined possible.

(Find this and other stories in my new book Find Your Whistle: Simple Gifts Touch Hearts & Change Lives.)