How to Process Not-Entirely-Positive Feedback
It can provide vital information for your career
Few events are more stress-inducing than walking into a meeting at which you know you’re going to receive feedback. It may relate to a task, an interaction, a project, or an entire year’s worth of work. Sometimes, you have a good sense of what the feedback is going to be, whether positive or negative. Other times, you have no idea.
If the feedback-giver gets started and the words begin to paint a positive picture, you start to relax. No problem receiving this type of feedback. Inside, your mind is celebrating and you feel affirmed in your capabilities.
But when it’s negative, our natural response is to perceive a threat and go into protective mode. As you begin to sense that the feedback is going to be critical, you may feel like fleeing (e.g., by shutting down, becoming silent, distracting yourself with other thoughts) or fighting (e.g., by questioning the accuracy of the underlying statements, inquiring into the source and motives for giving the feedback, or finding any number of faults with it in order to defend yourself against it).
There is a third option that’s infinitely more productive and likely to contribute to your long-term success than the other two: To listen, seek an understanding of it, and give yourself time to process before reacting. Here are some steps for processing difficult feedback in a way that reduces your stress and increases your ability to benefit from it.
Take a deep breath. As you begin to hear negative feedback, focus on your breath and on calming yourself. Avoid the impulse to react or defend. Remind yourself that critical feedback can have a game-changing impact on your career if it alerts you to the impact of your work or behavior in a way you were unaware of before and gives you the opportunity to change. Cultivate a growth mindset, that feedback is only an observation of your work at a point in time, not a permanent label. You can always choose to improve through conscious effort.
Think about the feedback giver as a client. Successful businesses seek out and act on customer feedback. If you’re receiving feedback from a person you work for, think of them as a client. Their satisfaction is paramount to your success. Strange as it may seem, the objective validity of the feedback is less important that the underlying message that your client is dissatisfied.
For example, say you bought bananas at the grocery store, got home, and saw that one of them was split open and spoiling. You would take them back. When you arrive at the store, the clerk says “all of the bananas were perfect this morning. You must have caused the damage on the way home.” This is not a helpful response to the complaint. As a customer, you would be outraged. The proper answer is, “we’re sorry about that. Go and get a replacement bunch.” The customer’s dissatisfaction must be addressed.
Listen to understand, not to respond. When we start to hear negative feedback, we may “shut off” our listening activity to avoid dealing with it, or stew inside and prepare to rebut what’s being said. The problem with that is, we may miss an opportunity to really understand what’s behind it and how to make things better.
Assume that the feedback giver is well-intended, even if they aren’t particularly skilled in the way they are giving the feedback. Remember that it’s hard to give negative feedback, so if the person is going through the stress of giving it, it’s probably important enough to pay attention to.
When eliciting specifics and asking clarifying questions, use a tone of curiosity rather than a challenging tone that sounds like a cross-examination. Your goal is to get enough information out about the underlying facts, the basis for the opinions, and the impact of your behavior or performance so you can formulate a plan to address it. You won’t process all of that immediately as you hear it. Just elicit the information and listen.
Active listening means not only taking in the information, but repeating what you have heard, to confirm that you have heard it correctly. For example, “I hear you saying that my last few memos didn’t have the depth of analysis you would like to see, is that right?” Give the other person the opportunity to clarify or augment what they have said. Try also to elicit the giver’s recommendation for a future solution to the issue, if it’s not obvious from the feedback.
Say “Thank You.” Look the feedback giver in the eyes and thank them for sharing the feedback with you. Remember again that it was probably difficult for them. Thanking them is a recognition of their effort in giving you the feedback and the potential value of the feedback to your career. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with it. Separate the content from the process. By receiving the feedback graciously, you demonstrate emotional intelligence and encourage people to give you more feedback in the future.
Think about the consequences of the opposite reaction. You react defensively, so your boss or colleagues never give you feedback again. Does that mean you’re doing great? No. It means that nobody is telling you if there’s something you could be doing better, a behavior that didn’t sit well with them, or an assignment you misunderstood. The problem is still there. You just won’t know about it, or be able to assess where you stand vis a vis the firm’s expectations.
Take time to process. After the feedback conversation, take some time to reflect on it. Consider talking to a trusted colleague, mentor, or friend. Consider the way you want to respond to it. Have you received similar feedback in the past? Look for the lesson, and try to understand the root cause of the client’s dissatisfaction. In some instances, you may need more information. If so, you may want to set another meeting with the feedback giver to ask some follow-up questions. Once you have a sense of what to do differently, make a plan. It may be as simple as developing a habit of more thoroughly proofreading your work product. Or it may require you to study and learn more technical knowledge. Figure out what you can do to improve your performance in the future, and look for new projects or matters that will give you an opportunity to prove yourself.
Critical feedback is not always easy to hear. But by focusing on its potential value to our development, countering our impulses to defend, and striving to understand the feedback giver’s point of view, we can learn to receive it, make others comfortable giving it to us, and elicit golden nuggets that can focus our professional development on the areas that need it most.
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