Our Natural But Fruitless Reactions to Criticism

We’ve all been there before. You hear or read something critical about you at work that causes a shortening of breath and a tightening of the muscles. The internal “fight/flight/freeze” mode has been triggered and there’s a good possibility that what comes next will not be a positive experience.

When these types of observations take place either in person, in writing, or even anonymously, they can be especially challenging to process. Even if the intent is constructive there’s a good possibility the initial impact won’t be positive.

If you’re the receiver of the feedback it’s likely one of the following scenarios will take place:

The problem is all of these options lead to more processing time, which results in a loss of productivity. In other words, as natural as they are, none of these responses allows you to benefit from the feedback.

[Read “How to Avoid Sending Emails That Upset Coworkers“]

We’re Uncomfortable Giving Feedback, Whether It’s Positive or Negative

Truth be told, receiving feedback can be just as challenging as giving it. That fact is supported by a recent Harris Poll, as reported in a Harvard Business Review article, that 69% of managers are uncomfortable giving feedback. Other research confirms this and goes further to explain that this even applies to positive feedback. Yet, we need to get feedback if we’re going to improve or grow.

A lot has been written on how to give effective feedback, but when we’re the person that receives it, is there anything we can do to help make the process more effective, especially when the observations don’t feel positive? Absolutely! 

[Read “Do You Pass the Smile Test?“]

How to Receive Feedback in a More Productive Way (And Make It Hurt Less)

The following five suggestions have proven to be very helpful in creating a positive outcome, regardless of how the feedback was delivered. 

  1. Separate the actual from the perceived. We all speak and perceive things from the context of our own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and values. Nearly all difficult conversations occur because people act on what they perceive someone’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and values are, but research shows that these perceptions of others are frequently inaccurate. That means we often react to what we think is there instead of what actually is. So it’s important to pause and question if our perception is what was actually intended.
  2. Ask questions. It sounds so simple but this is remarkably empowering, helpful, and productive. Asking a few open-ended, clarifying questions about the message can go a long way toward generating understanding and creating a foundation for learning. If the feedback is anonymous we can try asking ourselves which part of the feedback can be helpful or useful. One important caveat is to make sure any questions you ask are directed at genuinely understanding what the other person may have meant instead of setting them up for an expertly delivered counter-attack.
  3. Remember it’s not all about you. When feedback is given it’s easy to personalize it but keep in mind that the person giving it is telling you something from their own perspective and is delivering the message as best as they know how. That doesn’t mean the feedback should be minimized or dismissed, but it does mean you can help reduce any reactive responses you might have by separating the content from who or how it’s delivered.
  4. Be self-aware. If we get triggered and are unable to do any of the preceding three steps we can take a short break to process the information. This can reduce our fight/flight/freeze reactive behavior and increase our capability to thoughtfully consider what’s been said or written, even if we don’t know where it came from.
  5. Remain curious. It’s been said that the best leaders are those who are curious because they stay open to learning. When we are open to hearing what others have to say, even when it’s not positive, we can do a better job reducing reactive responses and learning more about ourselves. Try and take the position of someone who is exploring instead of interpreting.

[Read “Developing and Fostering Team Creativity“]

In an ideal world all feedback would be effectively delivered, but since that’s something we can’t control it’s helpful to focus on what we can control—thus capitalizing on the opportunity that feedback gives us to learn and develop, regardless of how it’s delivered.

4 Responses

  1. Nice job, George. Your points are in the middle of the bullseye. My experience is these points are much easier to talk about than do. One of the key thoughts for me when giving feedback is to remember the goal is to change or modify behavior, not change the person.

  2. Thanks, Tom. That’s an important point for giving feedback. Too often the feedback is not behaviorally clear.