Don’t spit the dummy: how to respond to critical feedback

How do you manage your reaction to something that hits you when you’re least expecting it?

I was once hit in the stomach with a basketball that I didn’t see coming. It knocked the wind right out of me, and I instinctively yelled: “I’m going to tell my mother on you!”

In my defence, I was eight years old and playing ‘line tiggy’ on a basketball court at school. If I’d known any profanities back then, I’m sure I would have used them. In that breathless moment, my reaction was completely involuntary.

Recalling that incident almost three decades on, it clearly left a longer-lasting impression on my mind than the one the basketball made on my stomach. And it also serves as a useful analogy for grown-ups.

Receiving critical feedback – whether in everyday conversation or a formal performance review – can hit us hard. It can be unexpected and unpleasant, and it can lead us to react in ways that are unpredictable and potentially damaging to our credibility and reputation.

On the other hand, leadership expert Ken Blanchard says that feedback is “the breakfast of champions”.

So how can we make the experience of receiving feedback more palatable?

The art of receiving feedback

With so much focus on giving effective feedback, there has been scant attention paid to how it is received – until recently.

In Thanks for the Feedback, Professors Sheila Heen and Doug Stone of Harvard University write about “the art of receiving feedback well… even when it is off-base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood”.

Heen and Stone, who (with Bruce Patton) also wrote the book Difficult Conversations, describe three ‘triggers’ that can leave us feeling like the wind has been knocked out of us.

The three triggers are:trigger

1. Truth triggers: when the feedback seems to be “just plain wrong”

2. Relationship triggers: when we react to the person giving us the feedback

3. Identity triggers: when the feedback challenges the way we see ourselves

It’s not that we’re wrong to be affected by these triggers. As the authors note: “Our triggers are obstacles because they keep us from engaging skilfully in the [feedback] conversation.”

In other words, being aware of the triggers can help us to process feedback and manage our response to it.

How should you respond to critical feedback?

You’ll have to read the book to find out! In the meantime, here are some tips to help you to accept feedback more gracefully (than a punch in the stomach):

1. Make sure you understand the feedback:

Have you have correctly understood what the person giving the feedback intended? Valuable feedback can easily be lost in translation as it passes through the filters of our existing beliefs and assumptions.

When you first receive the feedback, take a moment to check that you have correctly interpreted it before you respond:

“What I’m hearing is… Is that what you meant?”

2. Separate the content from the relationship:

Consider whether your reaction to the feedback might be different if it had come from a different person. If  so, you might be reacting to the person and not the feedback itself. Again, valuable feedback could be lost.

On the other hand, the source of the feedback isn’t entirely irrelevant.

As research professor and author Brené Brown puts it:

“I only accept and pay attention to feedback from people who are also in the arena. If you’re occasionally getting your butt kicked as you respond, and if you’re also figuring out how to stay open to feedback without getting pummeled by insults, I’m more likely to pay attention to your thoughts about my work. If, on the other hand, you’re not helping, contributing, or wrestling with your own gremlins, I’m not at all interested in your commentary.”

The key is to be discerning. Don’t reject feedback just because you don’t like who it’s coming from, but don’t automatically accept it until you have considered their credibility and motives.

3. Choose to find the lesson in the feedback:

The average human being is surrounded by a complex and exquisitely sensitive trip wiring system that protects our identity (our sense of who we are) from things that we perceive might damage or destroy it.

When this system is triggered by unwelcome feedback, it can be helpful to reframe the situation as a growth opportunity: “What can I learn from this?”

Or even: “What am I contributing to this?”

And: “Who would I need to be to react differently to this?”

This approach allows us to retain a sense of control over the situation, while still allowing us to digest the feedback and retain any aspects that might support our growth.

Even adults get growing pains

Receiving feedback can be uncomfortable – even painful.

A different Thanks for the Feedback – this time a children’s book by Julia Cook – shares the story of a boy called RJ who receives a lot of feedback and doesn’t always like it.

Towards the end of the book, RJ’s father gives him this advice:

“RJ, feedback is a good thing. It’s information that can help you improve and grow. Most of the time when a person gives you feedback, it doesn’t make you feel good. But that’s the price you have to pay for growing.”

So instead of rejecting feedback that might be uncomfortable or unpleasant, why not treat it as an opportunity to learn and grow?

And instead of deflecting blame to whoever gave you the feedback, why not consider that maybe the reason they bothered to give you feedback at all is because they care?

As author and entrepreneur Seth Godin put it in a recent post entitled We don’t care enough to give you constructive feedback:

“You can react to the feedback by taking it as an attack, deflecting blame, pointing fingers to policy or the CEO…. One other option: you can care even more than I do. You can not only be open to the constructive feedback, but you can savor it, chew it over, amplify it….

“Because then, if you’re lucky, it might happen again.”

In the face of feedback, the courageous option is to embrace it.

Happily, I learned not to play line tiggy on the edge of a basketball court, and I was never hit in the stomach again.

To learn more about giving and/or receiving feedback, you can read, Thanks for the Feedback

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