Thank you sir, may I have another?

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“I have already settled it for myself, so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

Full disclosure: in my many years of corporate life, I hated receiving feedback. Intellectually I accepted it as an important and constructive tool for improvement, however emotionally it caused me a lot of stress and the experience always left me feeling down. During those years, it was difficult for me to separate what should have been useful information from how uncomfortable and discouraged that information made me feel. Despite my own experiences as a manager, experimenting with different ways of giving and receiving feedback, it continued to be a struggle for me personally to detach from the idea that the feedback was personal when I was on the receiving end of it.

Now in my career as a coach, I have had a greater variety of experiences witnessing the ways clients confront their own feedback, and I have had an increased desire to use feedback constructively to become a more effective coach. In seeking to support both my clients and myself, I’ve developed a personal toolkit to help me reframe my attitude towards both criticism and praise. While resources abound on the best ways to handle receiving feedback, I’d like to share a few concepts that I’ve found most useful in understanding my own response to feedback, as well as some techniques that have resonated with me personally.

One concept which has helped me understand why criticism was so painful in my earlier years is the idea of self-complexity, which means that if you have many ways of describing yourself, criticism in one sphere might sting less because it’s only targeting one part of you rather than your whole self. Reflecting on my early years of work, as someone who wholly prioritized my career over all other spheres of my life until my mid 30’s, it makes perfect sense that any kind of critique of my performance would feel downright distressing. With the tremendous effort and dedication I put into my work, to the exclusion of most other areas of my life and without other significant ways of defining or appraising myself, of course it hurt to receive feedback, no matter how constructive. Nowadays, with a more rounded life and more ways that I define myself (executive coach, wife, mother, daughter, fundraiser, business partner, advocate, to name a few) my career is only one role that I play, so feedback feels less like it strikes at the core of my being, the way it did when I was 25 or 30.

Another reason why feedback or criticism can feel distressing is simply biology. David Rock, a neuroscientist and thought leader on human performance, advanced the idea in his SCARF model that social behavior and specifically workplace interactions can actually trigger our primal threat and reward response. So, an interaction such as receiving feedback, which easily hits many of these trigger notes, feels the same to us as if our physical safety is threatened. That “deer in headlights” fight-or-flight feeling that you might experience while receiving feedback or even witness as the person delivering feedback, is very, very real. Knowing this, I’m able to have greater empathy for myself in whatever my initial reaction to the feedback might be, and simply acknowledging this response is helpful as a starting point.

So, how might a sensitive person who is not naturally comfortable receiving feedback, handle with grace the occasional critical comment or the more robust results of a 360-degree assessment?  In addition to understanding the SCARF model and using it to make feedback seem less threating and stressful, my other favorite reframing techniques come from Tara Mohr in her book Playing Big, where she suggests a paradigm shift of unhooking from praise and criticism using the following reframing thoughts:

 

  • Feedback doesn’t tell me about my value or the value of my ideas- it is emotionally neutral strategic information I can use to help me achieve my goals.
  • Feedback doesn’t tell me about me- it tells me about my audience and key stakeholders.
  • I have separate audiences for support (friends, family) and feedback (key stakeholders, clients, manager).
  • I don’t interpret feedback to mean there is a sign of a larger problem or failure – I understand it as a necessary part of leadership growth and development.
  • I can believe that criticism hurts and therefore avoid it, or I can understand that the criticism that hurts most is that which reinforces my own beliefs and fears about myself.
  • I can believe that praise itself is the goal, or I can reframe my thoughts to see praise as a nice “cherry on top of the sundae”. My work itself and the fulfillment and satisfaction I get in service to others is the goal.

In addition to reframing how you look at feedback, knowing a few ways to influence how the feedback is delivered can be tremendously helpful in hearing and absorbing it. One of the surest ways to ensure that you are ready to hear feedback is to control the timing of it. Asking for feedback (maybe through a selfie 360) not only allows the receiver to ensure they are in the right mindset to accept the feedback, but it also serves as a kind of exposure therapy, in that the more frequently you ask for and receive quality feedback, the better you get at hearing it. Also, people want feedback delivered in different ways. Some people prefer to first hear praise (what went well) which then allows them to more readily accept the criticism. Others just want to hear it straight and want to know without any “filler” what they should do to improve. If there’s a specific way that helps you accept feedback, let those around you who regularly deliver feedback (your manager, peers, etc.) know how you best accept it so they can tailor their messaging.

With the trend moving away from yearly performance reviews towards feedback-rich workplace cultures (such as Radical Candor) getting a handle on a few effective techniques for receiving feedback is essential. Whether it’s taking a step back to look at feedback within the bigger picture of the many roles you play, stopping to recognize that fear-based reactions to less-than-perfect feedback is a very human response, or taking the initiative to normalize feedback as a consistent part of your work life, it’s worth having some deliberate practices in place to help soften the blow of what can sometimes be an uncomfortable but invaluable practice.

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