Feedback is a two-way street
Way way back I blogged and podcast on giving and receiving feedback, both positive and negative, at season 1, episode 4. The main focus of that podcast and blog was on giving feedback well, but I touched on receiving feedback well too, specifically I talked about the importance of being respectful, listening well and asking clarifying questions. So do please go back and have a listen particularly if you’re looking for a simple effective method for giving feedback well.
In this podcast, though, I go more in depth on dealing with negative feedback that comes your way in terms of its emotional impact, how to respond to it and how to potentially act on it.
I’ll be bringing in personal examples to illustrate what I mean. I’ll be drawing on examples of dealing with negative feedback from work and home for this podcast because both are relevant and just as important and high stakes as one another, because emotions and well-being are involved, often of both parties.
What do we mean by ‘feedback’?
First up, when I say ‘feedback’, I’m talking about something that someone says to or about you that relates to something they’ve experienced in the way that you’ve behaved – something you may have said or done. When people ask…‘Can I just talk about something that happened in that meeting?’ or ‘I’d like to talk about something that’s not quite sitting right with me…’ or the more obvious, ‘Can I give you some feedback…?’, you know that they’re likely to be about to offer you an observation about something you’ve said or done that has had an impact on them.
So my tips for dealing with feedback, particularly feedback that has emotional weight to it are to prepare for it, ask for examples, don’t take it personally, sit with it then decide and finally to ask for it.
1. How to prepare to receive feedback
First of all, preparing yourself for feedback. Most humans, when faced with a sentence like ‘Can I give you some feedback…’ or ‘I’m not very happy about something I’d like to talk to you about…’ will perceive what’s about to arrive as a threat, and that’s likely to trigger an automatic defensive response of fight or flight or freeze.
This is a totally understandable and natural response so don’t worry if it happens to you. It’s like you plus pretty much everyone else, ever. However, going into an automatic survival mode probably won’t make you as receptive as you might be to hearing the feedback and asking questions, so the preparation I’m talking about is to try and get yourself into an emotional state that will allow you to receive the feedback well. Try to allow the person giving you the feedback to be heard and to ask clarifying questions to make sure you’ve heard it right.
Example: carving out space to hear the feedback well
This isn’t easy but there are ways you can help yourself. Example: my partner recently said to me that there was something that wasn’t quite right for her about the way we were sharing household duties that day and she was feeling there was too much on her. But the way she did that really helped me to get to a better place emotionally to truly hear her.
Earlier in the day I said ‘You ok?’ and she said ‘I’m not sure, let me sit with it and we can talk about it later’. In response, I had tried to get a read on what was going on for her so that I could take immediate action and had started asking her questions right in the midst of kid and work pressures, interruptions and no headspace. But it was the wrong time.
For a bunch of reasons, my partner saying ‘let’s talk about it later’ is a really good tactic because she’s giving herself future space to work through what she’s observing and feeling AND she’s mentally carving out a future time that day when we will have a chance to talk in a connected, unrushed way not surrounded by children wanting adult input or being focused on work demands.
I’ll level with you, it wasn’t that easy for me to sit with the not knowing what was going on for her because I like taking action so that everyone’s happy. But it was the right thing to do. When we did talk later, it was on the sofa, just us and she said exactly what she had been feeling and we both explored how we could handle the next day differently. Which we did.
We were both less stressed by that point. I could really listen, I was able to physically connect with her, we could both reassure each other and I could ask for examples. I hope that example’s been helpful. So my first tip is to give yourself the best chance of being prepared to hear the feedback, which will usually involve creating the right space and the right environment to be ready to listen and to allow the other person to be heard.
2. Understand what you’re hearing
My second tip is to really understand what the feedback means for the other person. And that might mean respectfully asking for examples or to clarify where there’s a difference of view. While the survive/defend/justify part of you might be screaming ‘But I also need to say my part! This isn’t fair! I want to be understood! When do I get to speak my truth!’, now is not the time. Get straight what they mean first and show that you’ve understood by clarifying until you arrive at the same place.
3. Take your time and sit with the feedback
My third tip is to receive negative feedback seriously, but never personally. When someone is giving you feedback, it’s rare that it will be a personal attack on you. And if it is, that’s not really feedback, something else is likely to be going on with the other person relating to their agenda only and it may need a different approach.
Sometimes, negative feedback may feel unfair, it may feel like you have been misunderstood or that your interpretation of events is very different from someone else’s. And that’s all ok. The purpose here is to get value from the feedback that’s being offered and not for your point of view to be heard, or for you to satisfy your ego. So, assuming that you’re receiving negative feedback from someone who has positive intentions, how are you going to get the positives from it?
My advice is to sit with the feedback, let it take its time. That might be for a few minutes if the emotional element is limited. It might though be hours or even days. Or you might think you’ve processed it and understood it, but it may actually be days or weeks later when something else happens and it’s only then that you have your lightbulb moment of realisation. Things connect in your brain and the learning insight pops out. So be prepared for that, stay open to it, stay curious and keep challenging your own defensive response so that you can keep holding that broader interpretation of events. Only when you’re ready, take the learning forward.
After all, emotions are information, not a call to action. You can also choose to not do anything with the feedback, it is fine to decide to not do anything with it, other than to hear it and to show that you’ve heard it. It is possible that two alternative ‘truths’ or interpretations of an event can co-exist and that’s ok.
Example: taking the time before deciding on action
To illustrate that, my second example is a work one. I got some feedback recently about the importance for me of boundarying – I mean making sure that I am clear on the boundaries that I have with people at work, which I find challenging because I like to share and I encourage people to bring all of themselves to work authentically. And that can sometimes be difficult for people either to do themselves or to know how to respond to me doing it.
This feedback came via a third party – not the perfect way for feedback to come to you, but it’s often the way it happens. When I first heard it, I was definitely triggered defensively, I had an emotional ‘That’s not fair and it’s not what you said at the time’ response. But the fact that it was delivered second-hand meant that I could get space from it quite quickly and sit with it for as long as I needed.
So, a few weeks later, having had some more time to reflect and to stay curious as to what I’m noticing in other parts of my work life, I’m now in a place where I feel I’d like to act on some of the feedback and to create stronger boundaries based on other people’s likely expectations of me, so that I’m perhaps not 100% me 100% of the time with 100% of the people, instead I choose to bring the most helpful or valuable part of me to meetings or one-to-ones to try and get the best outcome I can.
I can now see the journey I’ve been on with this feedback: from shock, to self-protection, to curiosity, to acceptance and in the end to action.
4. Ask for feedback
My final tip is to ask for feedback. We tend not to get enough feedback in general, so ask for it. Warts and all, the smooth and the crunchy. Be prepared that some people won’t enjoy giving tough feedback and some won’t ever do it, it’s important to respect that. But some people in your world (often those with a Courage strength I’ve found) WILL be prepared to give you supportive and challenging feedback and that will always be invaluable to keep you humble, learning and evolving.
Finally, try to cultivate a growth mindset
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this podcast. if you’d like to get more from your every day, please do sign up to our emails for simple and practical hints and tips on everything strengths and life. The sign up form is at the bottom of this page. Till next time, go get that feedback!
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