Become a more inspirational and resonant leader by fully aligning who you are with how you communicate.

When you get feedback, regardless of whether it is positive or negative, what do you do with it?

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Chances are, according to Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project, you put that feedback into a story that you are already telling about yourself and about the other person.

Hansel-Gretel

(You know, just an innocent story about two kids lost in the woods…)

The feedback: “You need to speak with more confidence” is usually followed by the unspoken sentiment “like I do,” which is a story that they have about themselves and what made them successful in their career.

While they may think that this is helpful advice, without the context of what they mean and specifics of how it relates to you, it is fairly useless.

You might try to put their feedback into a story of your own “worthiness” and feel that it is more an evaluation of how insecure your position is rather than an attempt at coaching you to trust yourself more. This is not helpful because it is your attempt to interpret, not necessarily understand.

Because of these filters and stories it is almost impossible to get straight-forward feedback that is useful. Everything that we receive from another person is told within the context of a story that we can’t possibly know and received within a story that we are so familiar with that we may be completely blind to it. Hard to hear the feedback part when all we hear is the criticism.

(But we can work with that…)

Miscommunication is rampant when it comes to feedback, and the more that we rely on “objective data” to give people feedback on how they are doing, the more likely they will misinterpret the signals and the message (or more precisely, the messenger).

Even well-intentioned feedback like “you need to speak up more in meetings” isn’t entirely clear.

(I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean this, but maybe…)

What can we do?

My recommendation is to first put your story aside for the moment. No matter how much your boss/mentor reminds you of your fourth grade teacher telling you to stop talking during the meeting (when it was so obviously Michael who was whispering to you), you have to put that feeling of unfairness and victim hood aside. First let’s figure out what is really going on.

1. Assume best intentions

Imagine for a second that the person giving the feedback has your best interests at heart. If it helps, you can imagine that English is his/her second or third language, so you will need to work extra hard to understand what they meant behind the awkward phrasing. You would be surprised at how often crappy feedback is given with the best of intentions. If you can pretend that the feedback is meant to help and not hurt, you might be able to gain something from it after all.

2. Separate the emotional from the factual

If all we did was take the time to internally separate our emotional reaction and emotionally loaded language from the feedback, we might be able to find some common ground in the actual feedback. If we can assume best intentions and then separate the emotional feeling from the words (and that’s a big “if”) then we might actually be able to hear what the person wants for us.

(You know, like an adult.)

3. Seek understanding

If you are willing to do the first two, then this one should be easy. Just ask questions about the feedback. Be curious.

For example, if someone says that you “really need to step up your game if you want to be considered for a promotion” you might initially feel offended because you are already working 60 hours a week and running a few teams. Rather than assume that you know what the person means (or that he is just a jerk), just ask some open-ended questions.

Can you be more specific?

What are you seeing?

Tell me more.

They might not have thought about it, but chances are that they are referring to a specific moment when you weren’t sure of yourself. If there is one thing for sure, people will draw dramatic conclusions from a seven second interaction. Your best bet is to dig for that moment and try to understand how you are being perceived.

4. Thank them for the observation

Remember that all feedback is helpful (even when it sucks). If our goal is to get better at what we do, then we are going to have to accept that there will be ways that we will need to improve. It is more than likely as well that the places that we need to improve are also in our blind spot.

(Really didn’t see that one coming)

The more open we are to the feedback we get from others, the less reactive we are, and the more gracefully we can accept it (that is humility), the more we will improve in our job.

This doesn’t mean that you have to accept all feedback as absolutely true. It is usually the perception that the other person has about you, which is also pretty good information. If someone gives you feedback that doesn’t line up with your intentions or how you see yourself (“you’re really conceited” or “you’re a bully”), then you can be grateful for them pointing it out to you. You can’t correct perceptions that you don’t understand or that you don’t see. One way to respond is, “I don’t want you to experience me that way, how are you experiencing me that makes you feel that way?”

Again, like an adult.

When we put all the focus on the giver (they give crappy feedback) then we abdicate our responsibility to be the grown up.

We can take responsibility for our own lives. We can take this feedback and make the most of it.

Who wouldn’t want to work with and under someone like that?

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