There’s nothing worse than the email that starts with “We have to talk….”.
It’s natural that getting feedback ranks with other fun events like flu shots and trips to the dentist. It’s simple; nobody wants to be told they screwed up. But what if receiving feedback was something you were actually grateful for?
I received some feedback recently from a client that went something like this: “Hugh, some of the people in your session felt there wasn’t enough time for interaction and to learn from others.” (Note that feedback rarely starts with some good news!)
It’s human nature to want to get the other person’s attention by starting with the bad news. It’s also human nature for our brain to go into protective mode. After all we are hard wired to protect ourselves. You might have a Ph.D in psychology, but be accused of wrongdoing and the heart rate goes up, muscles tense and the mind quickly prepares its defense statement. None of this is going to help.
Sure, it would be great if everyone was more sensitive, understanding, balanced and kind with their delivery, but that’s not something we can control. All we can control is our end of the conversation and that’s where I have some advice for you.
First, you need to recognize and embrace that feedback is a part of life. You might have a glowing record of success in your work, be the perfect husband/wife and outstanding with your kids. But the reality is that you screw it up sometimes.
My first 10 years of marriage were a blessed wake up call to all of my bad habits. And I mean “blessed” because without the feedback from my beautiful wife I would still be blindly repeating some pretty selfish, insensitive, and down-right stupid behaviours. If you don’t like feedback, just ask yourself what you would prefer: to know the truth, or to be bumbling along ignorant of your faults?
Next, I find it helpful to remember that I will be a little choked by the news I’m receiving. To hear that you have underperformed (maybe even in front of your peers) hurts. We all see ourselves as being pretty special, talented and good looking (or at least two of these). And it’s not the best feeling to be told that our illusion of greatest is a little tarnished in other’s eyes. It’s even more painful when the deliverer of the news tries to strengthen their argument by informing you that others think the same thing, or that you “always” do this, or by overstating the impact of your misdeed (e.g. “…has really screwed things up for us…”) We may be an adult, but at times like this we are a five-year old in a big body and the endorphins and adrenalin take over.
“Blame is for God and small children” – Dustin Hoffman
The last step is to practice successful strategies for receiving and responding to feedback. Next time this happens, try these three strategies:
When we are being told that our report was not up to snuff, our comment was hurtful, or that we were late (again) picking up the kids the best strategy is to be quiet. That’s all—be quiet and listen. It might be that every cell in your body wants to lash out and fight back, but this is when you need to out smart biology. Interrupting, arguing back or getting defensive just adds fuel to the fire. What could have been a positive learning experience now is a full out battle of the wits and both parties will lose. Instead, take the high road and use their opening volley as a trigger to calm the mind and have only one focus: to listen and learn.
At these moments I remind myself that this is not a personal attack. Of course, it is about me, but it is only about my behaviour—and that can be changed. Unless this person really has it out for you, they are simply reporting (albeit in their often insensitive way) on your behaviour. The personal attack part is just what you made up in your five-year old brain. Breathing and shifting your focus to the big picture can help (e.g. ‘we do have a strong relationship and this is only a small correction’.)
“If we insist on an eye for an eye, the whole world will be blind.” – Mohandas K. Gandhi
When we get triggered we want to defend ourselves. It’s human nature. It’s also not all that helpful. I’ve watched a single comment turn a conversation on it’s head and both parties go into full out battle of words in an instant. Instead, a little dose of honesty on our part goes a long way.
When I am receiving feedback I remind myself that this is probably good medicine (maybe delivered in a nasty tasting pill) that will help me. I don’t think there has ever been an instant when feedback I have received has not had some truth in it. I was insensitive with my staff. I might not be “always” insensitive, but I was this time and is has likely happened before. So, this feedback is a good reminder of how I can improve.
I subscribe to the advice: “The fastest way to change someone is for you to go first.” When we are honest with our self and admit to our faults the other person may begin to mysteriously appear different. No longer are they the fire-breathing critic, instead they are simply trying to share and we need to listen.
Note, this does not mean of course that they are always perfectly right. Of course the other person, the one delivering the feedback, might have it wrong, or might be overstating the point. Fair enough, but by overreacting on our part it just makes it worse. Instead, when we take the higher ground and breath, put the feedback in perspective and recognize the lessons to be learnt, our opponent can become our ally.
Lastly, there is no point making the situation worse. Adding fuel to the fire by retorting with your defensiveness and counter-attacks might earn you a few points, but will certainly not help the relationship. If we truly believe that we want honestly in our relationship, then it is our responsibility to help the other person to feel safe delivering it. Fighting back is a short-sighted, simple-minded approach to resolution and doesn’t belong in our offices, kitchens or bedrooms.
I know I’m far from perfect, but it still stings a bit to be reminded of it. But I have learned that with a little bit of listening, some honesty and big dose of kindness what started out as a sting can become a blessing.
I hope this helps.
“Life is an adventure in forgiveness.” – Norman Cousins
PS if you missed some of my Work Smarter seminars they will be posted soon on our site.