Most people avoid giving feedback because they’re concerned about (don’t want to deal with) the other person’s defensive response. It’s easier to say nothing than deal with someone’s defensiveness. So, we say things are fine when they’re not.
If you want people to tell you the truth, do the opposite of what they expect when responding to feedback. Rather than become defensive, say, “thank you.”
Saying “thank you for the feedback” is not intended to be a Pollyanna response, nor does it mean you agree and that the person is right. Saying “thank you” catches the other person off guard (in a good way) and buys you time to think and respond calmly, making it more likely that you’ll get feedback in the future.
Each of us wants to be thought well of and be seen as competent. Negative feedback calls both into question and the brain responds defensively. The challenge is that defensive responses scare other people into silence. And you only need to get defensive once for people to believe that you don’t deal well with feedback.
Don’t underestimate the power of your emotions and ego. You are likely to respond to feedback defensively, even if you don’t see yourself do it. A seemingly benign ‘explanation’ of why you did something as you did it, is seen as defensive and is thus off putting to others.
Here are six strategies for responding to feedback well:
- Have feedback conversations when you have the time to listen and are rested. If you’re tired, on a deadline, or rushing to your next meeting, the conversation will not go well.
- If someone catches you off guard with feedback and you know you won’t respond well, interrupt the person. Tell them that you appreciate them bringing this to your attention and you want to give the conversation the attention it deserves, but now isn’t a good time. Schedule a time to finish the conversation within a few days.
- Have a plan for how you’re going to respond to scheduled/planned feedback conversations before the conversations start. Tell yourself, “I will say thank you, end the conversation, and ask for another time to talk.”
- If you receive feedback that doesn’t feel accurate, ask others, who you trust, what they think. Just be prepared to hear what they have to say, and, of course, respond with “thank you.”
- Don’t respond to negative feedback in the moment, even if the other person wants you to and you think you can do so without being defensive. Don’t underestimate the power of your emotions. You will be upset, even if you don’t feel upset, and your response will be better after you’ve had time to process. Tell the person who gave you feedback that you take their feedback seriously and want to respond thoughtfully, and thus you’re going to think about what they said before responding. People may be frustrated with this response at first, but they’ll be appreciative later.
- Be sure to get back to the person, who has feedback for you, within a few days. Tell them you thought about what they said and then tell them how you feel. You can speak candidly. Your words will be calmer and more thoughtful than when you received the initial feedback.
We know people are hesitant to give feedback. Make giving you feedback easier by responding calmly. No one expects to hear “thank you for the feedback.” Your unemotional response will strengthen your reputation and relationships and make it more likely that you get more feedback in the future.
The people you live and work with are hesitant to give you negative feedback. They’re afraid you’ll freak out, and they don’t want to deal your freak out. It’s easier to say nothing.
When I started teaching how to give and receive feedback, I provided elaborate explanations as to the predictable response to feedback and the rationale for that response. Now I’ve boiled the natural response to receiving feedback into three words: The Freak Out.
Every person you know – personally and professionally – wants to be liked and approved of. Even the people in your organization who you think are lazy, want you to think highly of them. And when anyone calls another person’s competence into question, that person is likely to freak out (become defensive).
It’s very difficult not to get at least a little bit defensive when receiving feedback. A defensive response often sounds something like, “Thanks for the telling me that. Can I tell you why I did it that way?” The problem with that slightly defensive response is that what the other person hears is, “You’re not listening. I am wasting my time talking to you.” Then the conversation quickly ends. People want to feel heard. And when the feedback recipient becomes defensive, the person giving feedback doesn’t feel heard.
Don’t feel badly about becoming defensive when you receive negative feedback. Becoming defensive when receiving bad news just means you’re a living, breathing human being with feelings. That beats the alternative. But The Freak Out scares people. They don’t want to deal with your mild, moderate, or very defensive reactions.
Because people want to avoid The Freak Out, they keep negative feedback to themselves, or worse, tell someone else. If you want more truth, you need to make it clear there won’t be negative repercussions for speaking up.
Here are seven steps to get others comfortable giving you negative feedback:
1. Ask for feedback.
2. Be specific about the type of feedback you want.
3. Tell the person from whom you’re asking for feedback when and where she can observe you in action.
- A bad example of asking for feedback: “I really want your feedback. Feel free to give it anytime.” This is too vague and doesn’t demonstrate seriousness on your part.
- A good example of asking for feedback: “I really want your feedback on the pace of the new-hire-orientation program. Will you call into the first hour next Wednesday at 9:00 a.m. and tell me what you think of the pace and why?” This request tells the person specifically what you want and demonstrates you’re serious about wanting feedback.
4. When you receive feedback, say, “Thank you for telling me. I’m going to think about what you’ve said and may come back to you in a few days to talk more.”
5. Don’t respond to negative feedback immediately. Walk away instead of responding.
6. If you’d like more information or want to tell the person you disagree with what they said, wait until you’re calm to have that conversation. That can be minutes or a few days later.
7. You can express a counterpoint of view, just don’t do it immediately after receiving feedback. Anything you say in the moment will likely sound defensive.
No matter what a person’s role in your life – your boss, a peer, external customer, or even spouse – it takes courage to give you feedback. When a conversation requires courage, the speaker’s emotions are heightened. If the feedback recipient’s emotions rise in response to the feedback, conversations escalate. This is how arguments start. If you want to put the other person at ease and get more feedback in the future, do the opposite of what people are expecting. Rather than getting even the slightest bit defensive, do the opposite. Say, “Thank you for the feedback. I’m sorry you had that experience. I’m going to think about what you’ve said and may come back to you to talk more.” Then walk away.
Walking away, when all you want to do is react, is very difficult. Walking away will require a good deal of self-control, but the rewards are great. You will build trust, strengthen relationships, and get more information than you have in the past – information you need to manage your career, reputation, and business.