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Dr. Susan Mathison, Published March 01 2014

Positively Beautiful: Use feedback as an opportunity

A good friend offered sincere, valuable feedback. She meant to help and advise. I heard criticism and disappointment. I tried to process it and respond thoughtfully but still messed up. I fear that I damaged the relationship.

Experts say that when given feedback we find challenging, most of us respond in less-than-constructive ways.

I was guilty of several of the following offenses, all in one email.

Pretending. We say little, disguise any hurt or humiliation, push the feelings way down and eventually act like it never happened.

“Thank you so much for sharing that.”

Defending. We justify our actions, give explanations, point out reasons.

“There was so much happening then. I didn’t end up with the time I needed.”

Denying. Denial automatically makes the other person wrong.

“I don’t see a problem; I’m great at this.”

Interrogating. We ask for proof that there is any truth to the feedback.

“Well, if you want me to understand what you’re trying to get at, I’ll need some specific examples.”

Self-destructing. We turn all our negative reactions inward against ourselves.

“I failed. I screwed up.”

All of these reactions distract us from painful feelings of not being good enough and give the notion that we need to change in some way. But adapting to feedback – which inevitably asks us to change, and sometimes significantly –is vital to succeed in our jobs, relationships and health.

Here’s what the experts suggest I try to do next time:

1. Listen better.

Realize that the perception of the person giving feedback is the reality that needs to be addressed.

Without confirming or denying the person’s perception, simply listen with full attention and take in what he or she has to say. Having the discussion in person always works better than email.

2. Be in tune to your emotions and be responsible for them.

It is not the other person’s fault you are responding as you are. You get to choose how you think and how you respond. When we own our reaction, it opens the way for genuine communication with the other person.

3. Realize that feedback is truly a gift.

That person has taken the time to offer you insights. Respect the courage it takes to deliver words that may not be received in a positive way. Make sure they know it’s safe to criticize without endangering the relationship.

4. Be curious instead of fearful.

Turn “I worry” into “I wonder.” Resist the temptation to explain or defend yourself. It may be appropriate to bring the subject up later, if explanations are appropriate.

Start with three simple words: “Tell me more.” What has the person giving you feedback observed? What does that person expect or want you to do differently? Don’t assume you know what the other person means. Ask gentle questions to clarify your understanding.

5. Ask for more.

Turn to other trusted friends or colleagues. Ask for further feedback regarding the issue at hand, especially if significant change is suggested. It’s easier to make a positive change with guidance and support. Don’t betray the confidence of the original source.

6. Be humble. We all have room to improve, and feedback lights the way.

Viewed in this way, feedback gives us the opportunity to grow into our best selves. I hope to do a better job next time.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at info@catalystmedicalcenter.com.