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Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!

“Could I give you some feedback?”

Just reading these words brings a rush of adrenaline.

Thumbs up. Thumbs down. We are continually assessed, evaluated, rated, offered feedback. It began at home: do this, don’t do that, “No!” And continued from kindergarten: 300 assignments, papers, and tests per year of school. And in debates at work over which process works best, how to analyze the data flood, and where to spend the shrinking budget. And don’t forget performance reviews: hundreds of hours are spent preparing and engaging in that annual process.

Our entire lives we’ve received feedback: how to do it better, change, improve, and grow. Sometimes the feedback is immediately useful. But at other times it is off base, poorly delivered, or offered without understanding of our situation. Done badly, feedback can leave us angry, demoralized, and unappreciated.

Why is receiving feedback hard? How can we use challenging and even crazy-making feedback to gain insight and succeed?

Our first reaction after hearing feedback is to identify why it is wrong. And there is likely something wrong about all feedback: lack of understanding you, the situation, or even flat-out incorrect: Telling me to mentor people when that is your goal, not mine. Critiquing my new plan for training while forgetting that your plan doesn’t include an online component or even require electricity. Suggesting that 2+2=7. Once we’ve identified the mistake, we stop listening.

The challenge is to recognize our defensiveness and choose a different path.

Begin with identifying what is being offered. Feedback is a word that wears different masks. Are you being offered appreciation that encourages and motivates? Coaching that increases knowledge, skills, and abilities with an opportunity for growth? Or, it is evaluation that describes expectations and where you stand in relationship? Even when we’ve identified what is being offered, it can still be hard to understand and easy to dismiss.

Feedback often falls into one of three categories: helping you, helping the person offering feedback and your relationship, or helping the organization or team. Here are three strategies for moving beyond defensiveness and toward discovery for each category: identify your reaction, make the pitfall shift, listen, and ask follow-up questions.

  1. Reaction: That’s not who I am! Or, that’s wrong!
    Pitfall shift: from You are wrong. to That statement is inaccurate.
    Listen for: information that I don’t have, the other person’s perspective, impacts that I am creating without being aware
    Ask: Do you have an example? What are you concerned about in this situation? How do my actions impact you or the organization?
  2. Reaction: Really – after all my hard work? Or,you are the problem here, not me!
    Pitfall shift: from This is not my fault. to I can see my part; let’s look at the bigger picture because there a multiple things at play here.
    Listen for: what the system issues are, for the relationship issues, including what each person is contributing or not contributing to the issues.
    Ask: Help me understand what you are saying; then, I’d like to discuss how/when/why you are offering this feedback and my concerns. How do you experience me contributing to this issue; what is most upsetting to you?
  3. Reaction: I always make mistakes and mess things up. I’m a failure, right?
    Pitfall shift: from I’m hopeless. to I’m surprised and would like time to think; could we meet later this afternoon or tomorrow to create a plan?
    Listen for: can I look for the coaching that is being offered and find an opportunity to grow, rather than focus on the judgment? How can I change the way I talk to myself so that I don’t automatically swing toward disliking myself?
    Ask: In your experience with others, what steps could I take that would help me improve and grow? What could I change that would matter most to you and the organization?

When receiving feedback, be your own champion. You don’t have to decide whether the feedback is fair or even correct. You don’t have to promise change. Practice understanding what kind of feedback you are being offered, identify your reaction, avoid the pitfall, listen, and ask good questions.

Attempt to use the feedback to create possibilities and generate options. Look for options that benefit you, the feedback giver, and the larger team or organization. Agree on the goal and the process for next steps, even if it is gathering additional information, inviting others into the conversation, looking for strategies for working around individual failures, preferences, or tempers, or simply taking two weeks to see how things develop. Be clear. Know where each person stands when the conversation ends.

Remember, feedback conversations are not one-time events. Most often they exist as part of an ongoing relationship, with multiple interactions over time. Understanding your own reaction, where you stand, and what the next step for you is will help both of you relate. In the end, you are the most important person. You are responsible for your reactions and for your willingness to learn and profit from feedback.

What questions do you ask when evaluating feedback?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. The phrase “non-anxious presence” comes to mind when I read the excellent re-framing ideas here. We often think of this term as a description of peacemaking. But the biggest peace we make is with ourselves.

    As for questions to ask after getting feedback: “What do I change? What do I choose?” This is a variation of Laurie Buchanan’s theme “Whatever you’re not changing, you’re choosing.”

    May 21, 2014
    • Shirley, A “non-anxious presence” can be difficult to maintain when receiving feedback, especially when feedback is off-target. It may be even more difficult when the feedback comes from a leader who we admire or a friend. Your statement, “the biggest peace we make is with ourselves,” is the key. I believe that we cannot look outside of ourselves to find actionable insight. We have to ask good questions that allow us to integrate feedback and experience, to discern our own way forward, to act with authenticity* within the relationships around us.

      Laurie’s theme is true to this idea. Thank you for sharing it here and introducing my readers to her blog.

      *In my experience, “authenticity” is an overused buzz word. Here’s a definition from Brené Brown: “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. … authenticity isn’t always the safe option. Sometimes choosing being real over being liked is all about playing it unsafe.” (from her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection”)

      May 21, 2014
  2. Shirley – How fun to follow you over here. Thank you for leaving a wonderful trail of crumbs!

    May 21, 2014
    • Hi Laurie!
      Welcome to this space. I look forward to your comments and ideas.
      I’m off to check out your blog.

      May 21, 2014

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