The Art of Receiving Unexpected Feedback

iStock_000004645645XSmallBy Jonathan London

In my blog post, “The Secret to Giving Transformational Feedback”, I discussed the role of conscious intention in giving direct, constructive feedback. Here, I explore the role of intention in receiving direct, perhaps unexpected feedback.      

When someone gives me negative feedback – especially when it’s out of the blue or delivered in a less-than-centered way, my first reaction is to get defensive. Maybe I have a perfectly good rationale for why I acted the way I did. Maybe my coworker, boss, roommate or girlfriend clearly doesn’t understand how hard my week has been, how much stress I’m under, and hey, how dare they criticize me anyway! I only acted the way I acted because of them – their immaturity, their lack of consideration, etc.

One of my good friends seems to take the opposite stance. In the face of criticism – or even the possibility of criticism – she tends to become apologetic, self-flagellating and downtrodden. Although this is a near-opposite reaction to mine, my hunch is that it’s actually coming from the same place: a preoccupation with our self-worth – our image of being perfect, good, righteous and irreproachable.

These seemingly opposite reactions have some other commonalities, as well. First, they are both knee-jerk, unconscious reactions. I don’t choose to blame others or deflect, and my friend doesn’t choose to internalize – it is our egos’ first line of defense against a perceived threat, simple as that.

And second, both of our reactions shut down a larger conversation. Neither behavior is exploratory, or generative. Neither invites the person giving feedback to explain their dissatisfactions or to ultimately feel heard. And neither allows us, the recipients of the feedback, to truly hear and evaluate whether there is something meaningful for us to learn. Maybe the feedback we’re receiving is applicable in many areas of our life. Maybe once we remove our egos from the picture, we’ll see that we’re being offered a gem.

And that’s just it – when we move past our knee-jerk reactions into an actual conversation, we have the opportunity to truly care about the information being offered.  We care because someone close to us has been hurt or inconvenienced. We care because we want harmony in our home and workplace and something we are doing may be compromising that. It’s not about whether we’re at fault, whether we did something wrong. It’s about taking a stand for what we want in our lives instead of letting our egos run wild.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of some surprising or emotional feedback, you may want to:

  1. Notice your reaction. If you find yourself becoming defensive, creating a case against someone, or alternatively feeling guilty or being very hard on yourself, that’s your signal. Acknowledge, internally, that you’re no longer feeling centered.
  2. Connect with the potential costs. Once you notice that you are off-center, remind yourself that acting from this state will, at best, shut down a potentially important conversation, and at worst be destructive to the relationship or endeavor. Do you want to have to clean all of that up?
  3. Express your desire now to hear their feedback later. Even if you’re feeling emotional, find the strength to say something like: “It sounds like we need to talk, but I’m feeling pretty defensive right now. Are you busy a little bit later on? I just want to make sure I can really hear what you have to say.” This will allow you a chance to cool down without the other person feeling like you’re shutting down the conversation.
  4. Connect with why this person/relationship/endeavor matters. Take some time and use it to connect with why this conversation might be important. Is it with someone you care deeply about, or that you simply have to interact with on a daily basis (in the case of a roommate or coworker)? Does the fate of a project or endeavor depend on the two of you having a strong relationship? Is this a low-stakes opportunity for you to learn something about how you are perceived by those around you?
  5. Follow up. Even if it feels easier to just let it fade away, it’s very important that you actually circle back. You may want to share why the conversation is important to you, and then ask to hear the person’s feedback. Don’t interrupt.  Apologize, if appropriate, and explain your side of things without discounting theirs. Ask, earnestly, what you can do differently in the future. If you have feedback for them (about how they brought up the issue, for example), ask if they are able to hear it right now, or if it is best to reconnect later.
  6. Process and express gratitude. Sometimes, you just need time to process after receiving feedback. Go on a walk, think about it, and realize that just because you’re fallible doesn’t mean you’re not lovable. You may end up feeling a deep sense of gratitude for your new “teacher”. Thank them for their openness and for expressing what they needed to express rather than letting it fester.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s post. Feel free to comment with stories, tips, or – gasp – unexpected feedback.

  1. Sarah L says:

    Really, really helpful words, Jon. This is advice I desperately needed, especially today. Thank you for sharing this. I feel like I need to read this every single day to really let it sink in and truly utilize your suggestions. I felt the same way after reading your post about giving transformational feedback.

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