Most of us avoid giving negative feedback because we don’t want to deal with the recipient’s defensive behavior. We’re waiting for what I call, The Freak Out. The Freak Out is the predictable response to negative feedback.
Everyone wants to be seen as competent and adding value. When we give people negative feedback, we call those two things into question and the brain instinctively reacts. It’s as if you were driving down the road and the person in front of you slammed on their brakes. As an act of survival, you’d hit your brakes too. Becoming defensive when receiving negative feedback is the same instinctual response. We (almost) can’t help ourselves. So rather than dread and avoid others’ defensive behavior, expect it and have a plan.
Here are five ways to deal with defensive behavior:
Plan your conversation by writing notes and bringing them to your conversation. I’m a fan of typed, double-spaced bullets that are easy to follow.
Practice what you want to say out loud. What you say in your head is often different than what comes out of your mouth.
Ask others for help. Change names and details to protect the feedback recipient and ask how someone else might deliver the feedback. Someone who is not emotionally involved will likely handle the conversation better.
When the feedback recipient exhibits defensive behavior, take a breath and pause. Remember that you expected this. Don’t retract what you’ve said. Just let the person speak.
Stay on track. Defensive behavior is designed to derail conversations. Keep the conversation focused on the feedback. Don’t become distracted.
What to say when people respond to feedback defensively:
Defensive behavior: “Why are you talking to me? I’m not the only one doing this.”
Appropriate response: “If others are doing this, be assured that I’m managing it. Right now we’re talking about you. I know this is difficult. Let’s stay focused.”
Appropriate response: “I know this is difficult. I’m asking you to __________. Please do that.”
Defensive behavior: “You don’t like me and you’re picking on me.”
Appropriate response: “I’m sorry you feel that way. The reason I’m asking you to ________ is _______.”
Defensive behavior: “I disagree.”
Appropriate response: “I know that we disagree. And I’m asking you to __________.”
The key is not to get baited by defensive behavior. This is why I suggest preparing and bringing notes. When I’m having a particularly difficult conversation and the other person becomes defensive, I often become flustered and either forget what I want to say or back pedal. Do neither. Expect defensive behavior. Don’t get distracted. Stay on track. You can handle anything someone says.
People get defensive when they receive negative feedback. It’s hard not to. Everyone wants to be seen as competent, and when we receive negative feedback, our competence is called into question. So we react.
There are several things you can do to reduce others’ defensiveness – ensure you have trusting relationship and thus have earned the right to give feedback, watch your words, deliver feedback in a private setting, etc. But for today, I’m going to focus on getting a second opinion.
If you want people to be more receptive to your feedback, consider encouraging them to get a second, third, or fourth opinion. I’m a fan of casual 360 degree feedback – when we ask for feedback from people we work with both inside and possibly outside the organization. Think of 360 degree feedback like an orange, it’s all the way around, like a sphere. When you get 360 degree feedback, you gather input from all the different types of people you interact with, thus getting a more comprehensive and accurate picture of performance. There are different types of 360 degree feedback. 360 degree feedback ranges from the formal – an online, anonymous survey (I’m not a fan) – to casual conversations (which I recommend). In this instance I’m suggesting something I call The Core Team.
I suggest everyone has a Core Team of about five people who love you, know you well, and have your back. Most important is that you trust these people. You Core Team may be personal or professional relationships, or a mixture of both. You may have worked with Core Team members or not. What all Core Team members have in common is that they know you well, want what’s best for you, and will tell you the truth when asked.
My core team consists of a friend from high school, two people I used to work with, and my parents. When I get feedback that I’m having a hard time reconciling, I ask people on my Core Team to validate the feedback. It doesn’t matter if they’ve worked with me or not. I am who I am. I do the same annoying stuff in my personal and professional relationships. So a personal Core Team member can provide valid, professional feedback and vice versa. Sometimes they agree with the feedback I’ve been given and sometimes they don’t. But I always get compelling information to think about. And because I trust the people on my Core Team, I listen to what they have to say.
Don’t be disheartened if people don’t trust your feedback and aren’t receptive. Instead, see their resistance as human and encourage them to get a second opinion. And then talk again. Listening to and incorporating feedback is a process. It takes time, courage, and patience.
Several years ago I hired a vendor that wasn’t a good fit. Try as we might to work together, we didn’t communicate well. Everything was a struggle. After a frustrating few weeks, the owner of the business offered to refund my money and amicably part ways. His company had already done work on our behalf and I didn’t want to lose momentum. I turned him down. That was a mistake. When a small business owner, who needs your business (money), tells you to go elsewhere, listen. We parted ways a few months later in a much more costly and less amicable way.
You don’t want to work with people who don’t want to work with you. The same is true for friends and romantic relationships. Don’t chase people. If they don’t want you, move on. There are lots of other people who will see your value.
There are differing schools of thought on whether or not you should try to retain unhappy employees who quit. I’d be interested in seeing statistics on how long employees who quit but are then retained, stay with an organization and how well they perform. I’d let them go. Again, you don’t want people who don’t want you.
The challenge is that most people are afraid to speak up in organizations and relationships (of all kinds) when they’re unhappy. Unhappy employees typically quit versus make requests and give feedback.
The antidote is to create a culture in which employees, vendors, and customers openly make requests and talk about what is and isn’t working. Create a climate of candor in which feedback is exchanged regularly versus just during exit interviews, which is too late.
How to know when to cut bait with unhappy employees and vendors:
You’ve had several open discussions and can’t meet each others’ needs. If you don’t have a job the employee wants, that’s a good reason to part ways.
It’s not a good culture fit. You talk and talk but don’t communicate. Issues don’t get resolved. Frustration is the norm. This is also a good reason to end a working (or personal) relationship.
Five steps to create a more candid culture:
Discuss employees’, customers’, and vendors’ needs and requests at the beginning of working relationships. Agree upon what success and a good job looks like. Ask lots and lots of questions, and listen closely to the answers.
Ask for feedback regularly. Conduct a weekly plus/delta (a discussion of what is and isn’t working) during which all parties are invited and expected to speak freely. The more you have these discussions, the easier they will be and the more candid people will become.
Address challenges as they come up.
Discuss challenges that can’t be fixed.
If a relationship isn’t working, end it sooner rather than later. Be slow to hire and quick to fire.
There are lots of talented vendors and employees. Find employees and suppliers who are easy to work with (for you) and who can meet your needs, and vice versa. If you can’t meet each others’ needs or the relationship is a constant struggle, those are good reasons to move on. Don’t chase.
I always want to do things right and hate making mistakes. When I say or do things I wish I hadn’t done, I relive those scenarios way more than I care to admit, also known as obsessing. But maybe life isn’t about doing everything right. What if our primary job in life is to be happy?
I’m not making a list of 2016 personal goals, although I don’t think doing so is bad. Lots of people will set 2016 goals. If setting specific goals works for you, do it. Just don’t set yourself up to fail. You’re not likely to lose 30 pounds, save 20% of your income, start a not-for-profit, visit five new countries, and become a fantastic cook in one year. Maybe dial those 2016 goals back and pick two of them, but only if you enjoy working towards those goals.
Perhaps life isn’t about getting more done. Perhaps life is really about enjoying more.
If you want to set 2016 goals, I wouldn’t be opposed if they are:
Have a job you love.
Spend time with people who make you feel good.
Speak your truth (nicely).
2016 Goal: Have a job you love. You don’t need to keep a job that doesn’t allow you to do work you enjoy and are good at. There are lots of jobs out there. Go get one you like.
2016 Goal: Spend time with people who make you feel good. Stop spending time with people you don’t like or who you don’t feel better after leaving their presence. Your discretionary time is limited. “I should maintain this friendship because we’ve known each other so long.” Or, “I should spend time with family members I don’t enjoy because it’s the right thing to do” is diminishing your happiness. Text those people occasionally and spend your time elsewhere.
2016 Goal: Speak your truth (nicely). People are more likely to quit a job and a relationship than to say what isn’t working and to ask for what they want. Fear less; speak more. When you speak from a desire to make things better and to strengthen relationships, there is little you can’t say, so start talking.
I won’t tell you not to save money, travel more, or become a gourmet cook. But what if your job in 2016 isn’t to do more? What if your primary job is to be happy? What would your 2016 goals be then?
Every time I ignore the red flags I see when interviewing a candidate, or when I feel an employee is struggling, or a project is off track, I pay the price. Every single time.
You interview a candidate whose commute will be 75-minutes each each way, but she says she likes to drive. Sure, until it snows. Move on. You haven’t gotten an update from a project team in over a month, but this group is typically reliable, so things are probably fine. Check in. Even the most diligent employees need accountability and attention.
They call them red flags for a reason. If you suspect a problem, there likely is one. Don’t just wait and ‘see how things go.’ Make a hard decision, get more information, or get involved. Wait and see is often a recipe for disaster.
Sometimes we don’t get involved because we don’t have the time or want to focus on other things. Other times we just don’t trust or listen to our gut.
I usually know what I want and need to do, both personally and professionally. Yet I tend to ask LOTS of people for their opinions of what I should do. I solicit advice from friends and colleagues, and in the end, I usually do whatever I want. Why not just trust that I know the right thing to do and just do it? Dad, are you reading this? See, I listen. My dad tells me all the time to stop soliciting opinions, I often ignore anyway, and just act.
Here are a six steps you can take to help listen to yourself and ensure you don’t overlook or ignore red flags:
1. Become very clear about your desired outcome. Decide what you want.
2. Eliminate distractions. Get quiet, aka, still your mind.
3. Think about the situation at hand. Weigh the facts and your options.
4. Decide without belaboring.
5. Act on your decision.
6. Don’t look back. Your initial decision is usually the right one.
Trusting and listening to ourselves can be hard. Perhaps it’s the fear of making a mistake or being wrong. Chances are you’re right. So pay attention to the red flags, trust yourself, and listen to your gut.
I had my first baby in September. He’s amazing and every day I’m more and more grateful for him. And I hate when he cries. And as we all know, babies cry. A lot.
Soon after my son was born, I found myself suffering when he cried and working hard to get him to stop. One day while he was crying, I realized that if I wanted to enjoy my time with him I needed to not only but accept, but embrace his crying. He was supposed to be crying. This is how things were supposed to be, or they’d be another way. And in that moment, I was able to stop resisting his crying and just be with him.
I still hate to hear my son cry and I do everything I can to make him stop, but I suffer less. Babies cry. This is how life looks when it’s working. I need to accept things as they are and go with the flow. As a Type-A, perfectionist, this is hard for me to do. I want things to be a certain way, aka perfect.
When your flight gets delayed, there’s traffic when you’re in a rush, or someone doesn’t give you the information you need to finish a project on time, it’s very easy and natural to get upset and think, “There’s something wrong here.” But perhaps there is nothing wrong. Perhaps this is what happens when life’s working. It’s just another way to look at things. Accept things as they are. Go with the flow.
This isn’t any easy concept to live by all the time. Breakdowns happen. People disappoint. We do dumb stuff that has negative consequences. It’s really easy to get upset and you’re allowed to do so. It’s normal and natural. But getting upset also reduces your happiness and satisfaction. And given how much stuff goes wrong, if we get upset each time, for a long time, we’re going to be unhappy a lot of the time.
Here’s a practice to try: When something frustrating happens, say to yourself, “I guess this is what happens when life’s working.” You might need to say it a few times. Repeating this phrase might make it easy to accept things as they are and go with the flow.
In the past few weeks, my new car got hit and was totaled. The nanny I hired quit the day before I went back to work, but not before getting both me and my son sick. These are really annoying and upsetting things, and I got upset. I also told myself, several times, “This is what happens when life’s working.” It helped. I need to accept things as they are and go with the flow. That said, I also made changes.
I now work hard not to cross streets where there is not a light – how our car got hit. And I’m being more careful and slower in hiring the next nanny. But I’m suffering less.
P.S. Thank you for the many good wishes regarding Gray’s birth. I didn’t tell many people I was pregnant for a long time and was overwhelmed by the positive response. It took me three years and many, many arduous fertility treatments to have Gray. It was hard, expensive, and emotionally draining. Maybe that’s what life looks like when it’s working.
Think about all the people and situations that frustrate you. Now consider what you’re asking for. My hunch is, you’re getting what you ask for.
While most of us aren’t great at telling people when they violate our expectations, we’re not any better at asking for what we want. You might be afraid of appearing demanding or may not feel you have the right to make requests. When you tell people what you expect, you make their lives easier. Think about when someone invites you to their house for dinner. If you have any manners (and I’m sure you do), you ask what you can bring. When the other person says nothing, it makes your job (to be a good guest) harder. Now you have to guess what the other person wants. It would be so much easier if he would just tell you. This also applies to birthday gifts and where to meet for lunch. When people tell you what they want as a gift and where they want to eat, you don’t have to guess and they are easier to please.
It’s much easier to live and work with people when we know what they expect from us. And setting expectations is always easier than giving negative feedback. Negative feedback implies someone did something wrong. And no one likes to be told he is wrong. Setting expectations provides a road map to success, making it easier to win with you.
Here are a few phrases to make setting expectations easier:
Setting expectations example one: Consider saying, “I need time to get settled when I come in in the morning. Will you hold all questions and requests until 10:00 am?” You’re not telling someone she barrages you with questions before you’ve even gotten to your desk in the morning; you’re simply asking for what you need.
Setting expectations example two: You could say, “I like to have things done well before they are due. Will you send me all input for the weekly status report by Wednesday of each week so I have a few days to review your input before I have to submit it?” You’re not telling the person that working with him requires a weekly fire drill; you’re simply making a non-judgmental request.
Setting expectations example three: You could ask, “Would it be possible to touch base once a week via phone during your morning commute so I can get your input on projects?” You’re not telling the person she is impossible to get time with; you’re simply proposing an idea.
One of the keys to getting what you want is make requests in a neutral, non-judgmental way. The more you ask for and the more specific your requests, the easier you are to work with. What you need and want will be clear; there will be no guessing. People may choose to ignore your requests and violate your expectations, and then you’ll provide feedback. But start with making clear and specific requests, and see how many fewer feedback conversations you need to have.
You probably have coworkers, customers and employees you rarely, if ever, see in person. You might even work for or with someone you’ve never met. While all feedback conversations can be hard, conversations with people we work with remotely seem even more challenging.
If I got a new pair of shoes every time someone said to me, “I’ve got this person and she isn’t (fill in the blank with anything that would trouble you). I’m going to see her in six weeks, so I’ll just have the conversation then.” Waiting six weeks to give feedback is unhelpful and wimpy.
There is nothing you can’t say or do over the phone. I used to think you couldn’t lay someone off via phone, but I’ve done it, so now I know it can be done.
Here are eight tips for remote management of employees and all types of working relationships:
Remote management tip number one: Know that any conversation you can have in person, you can have via phone.
Remote management tip number two: Schedule the same meetings you have with local employees, coworkers, and customers with those who live/work remotely. When you talk with people regularly, giving feedback is (hopefully) a part of your regular conversations. Having a feedback conversation with someone you rarely talk with will probably be more difficult.
Remote management tip number three: Set clear expectations for how often you want to meet and the purpose of the meetings. Tell people that you will discuss the same things via phone as you would in person and invite them to do the same.
Remote management tip number four: Work hard not to cancel meetings and reschedule all cancelled meetings as soon as possible. Time goes by so fast. By the time you know it, a month will have passed and you still won’t have had ‘that’ conversation.
Remote management tip number five: If you’re not a phone person, force yourself to have the conversations. If you’d prefer to use video conferencing, skype or Facetime, do that. Although for remote employees that will require not wearing pajamas, and they might not like that.
Remote management tip number six: Keep phone meetings shorter than in-person meetings. It’s easy to become distracted via phone. Keep meetings focused and short.
Remote management tip number seven: Give feedback verbally. Don’t rely on email to deliver hard messages. It’s easy to send feedback via email with people you work with remotely. You can’t manage the tone of written feedback the way you can during a live conversation.
Remote management tip number eight: Use whatever form of communication remote coworkers and customers prefer to schedule meetings. If they’re texters, text. If they like email, use that. You’ll get better participation and responses from people when you use their preferred method of communication.
One of our vendors isn’t a phone person. Her ringer is typically off. So if I call without warning, I get voicemail. So I text her, tell her a need to talk with her, and ask when is a good time. Then my calls get answered. You may be thinking, “Vendors work for you. You shouldn’t have to do that.” Maybe. But I try hard to live in the world of what works versus what’s right. When I communicate with people how they like to communicate, I get a better response, and you will too.
Approach remote business relationships just as you would in-person relationships. Schedule regular meetings. Pick up the phone to deal with tough issues, don’t fall back on email to give feedback. And don’t wait. The time to have any challenging conversation is now. You can do it. Pick up the phone.
Many people worry about giving feedback because they fear they don’t have the ‘right’ words. They’re concerned they’ll say ‘it’ wrong and damage their relationships.
Feedback is hard enough to give without worrying about saying everything perfectly. Worry less about having all the right words and more about whether or not people trust your motives.
When people trust your motives – why you’re giving feedback – you can say almost anything. When they don’t trust your motives you can say almost nothing.
Getting negative feedback is hard. It’s easier to listen to feedback when we trust the person who’s giving us the feedback – we know their intentions are to help versus to judge or hurt us.
Speak from the heart, be authentic, and worry less. Be yourself. If you’re nervous to say what you want to say, tell the other person you’re nervous. If you’re struggling to find the right words, say so. If you’re worried you’ll damage the relationship or that it isn’t your role to give the feedback, say that. Authenticity goes a long way.
How’s how to give feedback you’re apprehensive about:
How to give feedback phrase one: Consider saying, “There’s something I need to talk with you about but I’m concerned that I won’t use the right words and will damage our relationship.”
How to give feedback phrase two: “There’s something I want to talk with you about, but I’m concerned how it will come across. Is it ok if I say what I need to say?”
How to give feedback phrase three: “I want to give you my thoughts on something but I’m concerned that it’s not my place to do so. Is it ok if I share my ideas about _________?”
Other people aren’t expecting you to be perfect. But they do want to know they’re working with a human being. And human beings are fallible. We have fears. We make mistakes. And sometimes we don’t say things perfectly.
You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be real.
Who have you fired lately? The person who cuts your hair or lawn? A doctor, accountant, or restaurant where you had a bad experience? Did you call any of those providers and tell them why you were replacing them? My hunch is no. There’s little incentive to do so. Why risk their defensiveness? It’s easier to just replace them. And the same is true for you.
There’s little incentive for the people you work with to tell you when you frustrate them. The perceived cost seems too high. The people you work (and live) with have experienced others’ defensive responses to negative feedback (which is no fun) and they don’t want to experience your reaction. As a result, when you disappoint or frustrate others, it’s easier to say nothing than tell you the truth.
The tendency for others to tell you things are fine when they’re not will prevent you from managing your career and relationships. People will go missing and/or you’ll be passed over for professional opportunities and never know why.
To make it more likely that people will tell you when you disappoint or frustrate them, make it easy to tell you the truth.
Here are a seven practices for receiving feedback:
Receiving Feedback Practice #1: When you begin new relationships, tell people you want their feedback.
Receiving Feedback Practice #2: Promise that no matter what people say, you’ll respond with “thank you.” This is very hard to do.
Receiving Feedback Practice #3: Tell people you already have relationships with that if you haven’t said it in the past, you really want their feedback and promise to respond graciously with “thank you.”
Receiving Feedback Practice #4: Ask people who matter to you for feedback regularly.
Receiving Feedback Practice #5: Resist the urge to get defensive.
Receiving Feedback Practice #6: Catch yourself when you start to become defensive and apologize. Say something like, “I’m getting defensive. I’m sorry. Tell me again. I’ll do a better job of listening.”
Receiving Feedback Practice #7: Take a break from conversations during which you find yourself responding defensively. Say something like, “I’m not responding as well as I’d like. How about we take a break? Give me a few minutes (hours or days) and I’ll come back to you to talk more. I really want to hear what you have to say.”
The aforementioned list provides recommendations for asking for and receiving feedback you want, not feedback you don’t. You are not a dumping ground. Don’t ask for feedback you don’t want. And when you do ask for feedback, qualify what type of feedback you’re looking for. Telling people “I want your feedback” doesn’t mean they’re welcome to say whatever they want.
The purpose of asking for feedback and making it safe to tell the truth is to give you more control over your career and relationships. It’s ok to be passed over for opportunities and relationships, but it’s unhelpful not to know why.