Not Always Ready to Hear Feedback

For the past year I’ve coordinated a once a month meeting with many higher ups to discuss relevant issues. I usually only speak occasionally during these sessions; I want the leaders to take ownership of what’s going on. Last month I poached 15 minutes on the agenda for a topic I’m an expert on. I prepared a few slides and went through them with my message to the group. My delivery was intentionally aggressive because I wanted to elicit questions. With about 5 minutes left my higher level boss transitioned my presentation to his. It was a natural place for it so I didn’t think much of it. But I was slightly disappointed I didn’t get to finish.

Two weeks later I was chatting with my immediate boss and she gave me feedback from the meeting. The feedback was that I was a bit too caustic, meaning this wasn’t the audience for that. I wasn’t ready to hear the negative feedback. Not because I can’t handle it (it isn’t really a big deal), but because it was a surprise. It did touch a nerve with me, the reason is because it was my intention to be forward with this group. I wanted a response, I wanted to push buttons, I wanted action as a result of my overview. And this response means I misjudged the situation. Making a mistake in execution happens, but a mistake in judgment opens a chasm of doubt.

I mention all this because Peter Bregman at wrote up a blog with a few steps to deal with surprise criticism.  The post is called How to Handle Surprise Criticism and the advice is to:

Look beyond your feelings. We call it constructive criticism and it usually is. But it can also feel painful, destabilizing, and personal. Notice, and acknowledge — to yourself — your feelings of hurt, anger, embarrassment, insufficiency, and anything else that arises. Recognize the feelings — label them even — and then put them aside so the noise doesn’t crowd out your hearing.

Look beyond their delivery. Feedback is hard to give, and the person offering criticism may not be skilled at doing it well.

Don’t agree or disagree. Just collect the data.

Later, with some distance, decide what you want to do. Data rarely forces action, it merely informs it. Recognizing that the decision, and power, to change is up to you will help you stay open. Once you’ve got some time, space, and grounding, think about what you heard — what the data is telling you — and make choices about if, what, and how, you want to change.


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