How to survive giving feedback

Think resistance to feedback means you’re doing it wrong?  Not necessarily.

Word Count:  600

Reading Time:  Under 2 minutes

“How can they say I’m not communicating well?  I send out weekly updates, hold meetings and town halls, and I have a blog!

Annual review season will soon be upon us, and I’m looking forward to many conversations that start like the one above.  It sounds like the defensiveness that leads to a knock-down, drag-out fight.  But is it?   I hear it as the first step in the predictable response to feedback.  I take it as evidence the mind is beginning to grapple with information it finds strange and possibly inaccurate.

I welcome this response as natural, normal and desirable.

It’s also predictable.  It takes time to hear what someone tells us and find the part we are willing to own and change.  There is no shortcut, no work-around.  There are no feedback formulas that make it unnecessary.  This predictable, sometimes sparky response to feedback is how the mind learns.

The Predictable Response to Feedback*:

1.  Reversing blame.  “You should have spoken up sooner.”  “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me”  This response is out of our mouths before we know what we’re saying.

2.  Intellectualizing or minimizing.  “Well how big a deal is this really?  So I had one bad day.”  “People often misunderstand the time needed for a initiative of this magnitude to ripen and produce.”  The mind is still trying to distance itself from any responsibility.

3. Arguing intention over effect.  “But I never intended any harm.”  “I didn’t mean to cause any pain.”  Feedback is about the effect our actions had, not the effect we intended they’d have.  It’s our actions that have an effect on others, not our thoughts.  This is another way to deny responsibility.

4.  Agreeing/Accepting guilt.  “You’re right: that’s just the way I am.”  “I’ve always been that way.” “I just can’t seem to change that.”  This is the mind’s last-ditch attempt to dodge any responsibility for the effect of its actions.  When you hear it from someone, they are very, very close to:

5.  Hearing/Learning.  “OK, I hear what you’re telling me.  I can see that it didn’t work.  What I can do differently is…”

We want people to go from hearing our carefully worded feedback to #5 above without doing the work to get there.  It isn’t possible to do that.  Steps 1-4 are how the mind gets to number 5.

Eliminate those steps and you  eliminate learning. You’ve got to endure the discomfort of steps 1-4 in order to get to number 5.

It’s uncomfortable whether you are the giver or receiver of feedback.  It’s also worth it.  If you can weather the discomfort, both of you will find yourself in a fantastic conversation learning something shiny and new.

If you are giving feedback, listen for the predictable responses above.  Stay calm, firma and focused.  Do not react by becoming more forceful with your feedback.  Do not back off and soften your feedback.  Give the mind the room it needs to do its work.

If you are receiving feedback, listen for the predictable responses above.  They’ll be popping into your mind even if they don’t spill out of your mouth.  Relax and thank your brain for getting right to work sorting this out for you.  If the person giving you the feedback moves in for the kill, stop them.  If they try to soften the feedback, stop them.   You need time and a clear space to process what you’ve heard.  Ask for it.

(* Thanks to Brendan Reddy and Chuck Phillips for these.)


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