“Improving the world starts with ourselves.”
That’s how one New Hampshire student summarized ethics. A straightforward message not far from Gandhi’s assertion that we must “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
However, putting that principle into practice can sometimes be daunting, particularly in dealing with individuals who may interpret the Golden Rule as something considerably less than an ethical standard.
P.M. Forni began as a teacher of Italian literature. “One day,” Forni writes, “while lecturing on the Divine Comedy, I looked at my students and realized that I wanted them to be kind human beings more than I wanted them to know about Dante. I told them that if they knew everything about Dante and then they went out and treated an elderly lady on the bus unkindly, I’d feel that I had failed as a teacher.” This led Forni into offering lectures and workshops on civility.
After years of observation and work, Forni produced a short volume in 2002 called, Choosing Civility. It’s a little book that I frequently return to whenever I want to look deeper into the value of respect, and some cases, when I’ve strayed from that value and need a good, swift kick in my scruples.
In asking us to choose civility, Forni offers twenty-five rules for connecting with others. Among them, “Accept and Give Constructive Criticism.”
“Rather than thinking of your critic as the enemy,” Forni states, “try to be as open-minded as possible.”
In working with two colleagues on revisions for an upcoming book, I was troubled to learn of a gap, absent information important to the overall point I was attempting to make. After months of reading, analyzing and writing, my first reaction was defensive as I began to explain my way around it.
“Listen,” Forni says, “as though your critic were not speaking about you but rather about someone else.”
Once I listened, I realized that both individuals were giving me constructive comments to help improve my work, not tear it down.
“Ask yourself,” Forni suggests, “Is this criticism valid?”
Always the clincher for me.
In listening and re-reading, I realized that they were right. Another point: both individuals were making the sameobservations about the same issue separately. Neither knew of the other’s comments. If I had any doubts, they were quickly erased. I moved forward in making the necessary changes.
But what do you do if the criticism does not ring true?
“It’s perfectly all right to postpone your final response,” Forni says, ‘This is certainly food for thought. Thank you for your honest opinion. I will need some time to think about it,’ are all reasonable responses in such cases. “Should the criticism appear totally unwarranted, say so with tranquil firmness: ‘I’m afraid I can’t agree with that,’ ‘I don’t recognize myself in your characterization.’ ‘I know that’s not what I meant.’”
Actually, during my conversation, one colleague told me, “I know that’s not what you meant, but that’s not what I read.”
The next stage for me was acceptance. The comments were valid, and needed to be addressed in a clear, unmistakable way in order that readers understand exactly what I mean.
“When we reject outright the criticism that comes our way we forgo a precious source of knowledge and wisdom.”
In my study of ethics, I never quite realized the implications of civility with respect to receiving criticism. Clearly listening to practical criticism with an open-mind can almost certainly lead to improvements in our work, and isn’t that what we’re really after?
As my New Hampshire student reminds me in her paper, “it’s the choices we make that make the difference.”