The mere whisper of the word feedback from a colleague, friend, client or boss can make us wince in anticipatory fear, and plummet our thoughts into the abyss of failure.
But what is it about this word that makes us brace for the worst? Arguably, the word itself reeks of analysis and is heavy with personal baggage. Each one of us has endured a lifetime of feedback in both the overt and the obscure forms. From our parents and teachers, to our friends and bosses, and even now to our Instagram followers…. feedback, both positive and negative, is ubiquitous. Let’s face it, we live in a world where even a thumbs up icon or sad face emoji equates to some sort of evaluation. Sad, but true.
So how do we learn to filter the feedback we receive? How do we learn to identify our own instinctive defenses to criticism? And how, most importantly, can we reframe our maladaptive behaviors and thoughts in response to less than positive feedback?
These are tough questions for any of us to answer and ones that I have grappled with repeatedly in my roles as an educator, coach, leader, parent and now consultant. I admit, I haven’t always gotten it right. In fact, upon reflection, there are many times when I have gotten it very, very wrong. I was completely opaque when I needed to be porous.
But I truly believe that having a deep and honest understanding of our own Strengths, can profoundly impact our relationship with feedback. Knowing our own pressure points, vulnerabilities, needs and values can go a long way to embracing feedback instead of fearing it.
The Residue of Negative Self-Talk
In my coaching conversations, I am always struck by the fact that most people can easily talk about the dark side of their Strengths. Without exception, people can point to instances in their life where they have received negative feedback that has impacted their internal script. The words linger. There seems to be no shelf-life for these critical comments. But in fact, when understood, put into context, and used correctly, there really can be an expiry date on feedback.
Feedback = Fact of Life
Taking a proactive approach to thinking about the role of feedback in your life can help ease the angst and prepare you for the inevitable. In a 2015 Harvard Business Review Article, Dick Grote writes a simple prescription for dealing with perceived negative feedback.
- Listen Carefully: Remain silent. It will help you to better understand the criticism and distinguish the accuracy of the feedback from the quality of its presentation. There is usually some truth in the information, but all too often we hear “It’s not what he said, it was how he said it.” So when we focus too much on the how, it becomes easy to dismiss or rationalize the what.
- Don’t Get Defensive: Resist the instinct for rebuttal. Easier said than done, right? It is human nature to listen so that we can refute errors, justify our actions or prove someone wrong. However, this only results in a momentary tit for tat game of retaliation. In this instance, defensiveness can be interpreted as desperation or corroboration.
- Ask for Time: The 24 hour rule applies here. Simply saying that you need time to think about the feedback so that you can respond more clearly without being overly defensive or emotional is a perfectly acceptable response. This will allow you to process independently or debrief with a trusted friend, so that you can think through both the content and your response.
Changing the Script
The simple plan above is very effective in dealing with ‘real time’ feedback. It offers useful tips to handle those moments you least expect, like offhanded comments, or even those moments you anticipate, like annual performance reviews. But as part of an overall, proactive approach to understanding how you react and respond to feedback, I would like to invite you to explore this subject through your Themes of Strength.
This requires a deep level of honesty and self-reflection. It is valuable to do for each of your own Strengths, and I highly recommend this process. It is not easy work, but it will be well worth your time. No matter if you are a professional working exclusively with Strengths, or simply a newcomer to the language, I guarantee some personal ‘A-ha’ moments and genuine learning.
Below are some questions for you to ponder for each of your Strengths:
- Identify positive and negative feedback you have received about this Strength. Is it fact or opinion?
- Is there a word, a script or a belief that you now hold onto about this Strength that is limiting or holding you back
- How has this feedback shaped your internal script? What you tell yourself?
- What is a vulnerability or sensitivity you have when receiving Feedback that involves this Strength? What is your instinctive behavioral response?
- How can you adjust your response and behavior to this Feedback to create a positive adaptation?
- What could be your new script?
In the absence of strong emotion, taking the time to explore your interpretations of critique through Strengths, can be a very powerful way to embrace feedback, rather than brace for it.