Feedback is great. But when it comes out of nowhere, it can feel like a punch in the face.
If you haven’t had the experience, Mike Tyson summarized it well before his 2nd bout with Evander Holyfield, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” (Incidentally, Tyson lost the match, Holyfield part of an ear.) It goes like this:
You’re in the ring, minding your own business, looking for an edge on your opponent and planning how you’ll win this thing. Then it comes. Not a glancing blow, but a nice, straight shot that really “connects.” And it seems to come out of nowhere, leaving your plans – and brain – scattered.
Receiving critical feedback can be like that. Especially if we’re not used to it. We all have these myths and assumptions about ourselves. If they go unchallenged for long enough, we really start to believe them. Then when the challenge comes and someone points out that we’re NOT perfect after all, it can be earth-shaking.
There are some among us who are exceptionally mature in receiving feedback and go out of their way to get it. Yet, even they can be thrown off when the feedback is unexpected.
Beyond the sting, feedback can disorient us, just like that punch. I’ve had several disorienting critiques during my adult years. They were anything but fun, yet I’m thankful for them now.
But what do we do when we’re still reeling from the punch? Perhaps hardest is to stop thinking of it as a fight. Instead, we want to see the person across the ring as our training partner, someone there to make us better – even if that’s not their intent.
These steps will help:
1. Listen. As soon as the feedback starts, we should double-down on listening, to hear what is actually being said. Often, we stop listening at the first hint of critique, and we miss the main point. Or we assume we know what the critique is. We have a chance to learn something about ourselves and the other person that we might not otherwise have. Good listening is the path there.
2. Monitor physical response. Hearing critique can make us just as defensive as a physical threat. Our physiology often confirms this. Has your heart rate increased? Sweat? Hair on back of neck? Narrowing of eyes? Primal instincts to kill? Racing thoughts? Does the other person start to look like a vicious enemy? See how your body is responding, and then work to slow things down and control it.
3. Say, “Thanks!” Just say it, even if we don’t fully mean it yet. This can help in changing our mindset to see and appreciate the benefits of tough feedback – even when it stings. Many years ago, a mentor of mine gave 4 words that are helpful here: “You may be right.”
4. Ask (clarifying). After we listen, we might not fully understand the feedback – for any of a variety of reasons. Depending on #2, we might want to wait a bit until we can ask with a clearer head. Or we may ask in the moment. Either way, it’s important that we understand the message that was sent, and that the other person knows we heard it and understand it. You might add another round of “you may be right.”
5. Reflect. Reflection is a key part of the learning process. It may take some time for us to fully absorb the feedback we received. There may be parts we disagree with, or parts we eventually come to see. We also may find that the feedback helped put a face on issues we’ve been aware of. Setting aside time for reflection helps us sort this out.
6. Apply. A current mentor of mine has observed “insight without action is worthless.” Application can be the hard part, but it’s important to start it as quickly as possible. We can also invite those around us to provide a continual feedback loop on our application.
Part of that includes going back to the feedback – giver and saying it one more time. “Thank you.” They had the guts and cared enough to do what is hard for many. And they took the time to do it.