I facilitated a workshop this week that has given me lots of juicy fodder for discussion here with you. The session focused on uncomfortable discussions, including considerable time on how to give and to receive feedback. The conversation evolved as it usually does: we started with the mechanics of how to give feedback and quickly shifted to talking about all the unpleasant, unsavory, and uncomfortable reactions that feedback generates. That’s what you’re really worried about. Not, “how do I give feedback effectively,” but, “What do I do when my well-intentioned, finely crafted feedback elicits a nasty reaction?”

I’m glad you asked.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to assume that the feedback you delivered was textbook perfect. [If you need a refresher on feedback, which almost all of us do, check here.] I’m starting with that assumption not because textbook perfect is typical, but because I want you to be prepared that even the best piece of feedback can elicit a reaction that you don’t appreciate. A reaction that is, in the words of one of the audience-members in my session, “inappropriate.”

I’m so glad she said, “inappropriate,” because it gave me the entrée to talk about how your expectations shape your reality in your relationships.

So let’s unpack “inappropriate.” Starting with the very limited set of responses that you think are appropriate before I move on to the much larger set that you see as inappropriate. Appropriate responses to feedback include, “Wow, you’re SO right. I was WAY out of line. I’m exceptionally grateful to you for pointing out this terrible thing I’ve been doing!!!” What would be another acceptable or appropriate response in your mind? Perhaps, “Thanks. That’s really hard for me to hear, but I can see where you’re coming from.”

Essentially, your expectation of your colleague is that, upon hearing something disconfirming, disturbing, and maybe even disorienting, they will smile and say, “Thank you.” I hope by seeing it spelled out this way that you can see how lofty an expectation this is. I agree with you that this high road response would be great, I just don’t think it’s a reasonable expectation. It’s an expectation that will set your relationships up for failure.

Now, flip over to the relatively larger set of responses that are deemed inappropriate. I can think of a few:

  • Anger: Red, scrunched up face. Raised voice. “You have got to be kidding me!”
  • Sadness: Getting quiet, dropping eye contact. Tears.
  • Silence: Going silent. Walking away without responding.
  • Aggression: Disagreeing or contradicting. Giving evidence to the contrary. “Everybody else thought my presentation was just fine!”
  • Blame: Turning your feedback back onto you. Telling you their behavior is your fault. “I didn’t give you what you wanted because you didn’t bother to tell me what you needed!”

If you have other examples, please add them to the comments. I’m writing about this in my new book and I’d love to have an exhaustive list of unpleasant reactions.

Now, you’re standing looking at the person who just responded to your feedback with anger, or sadness, or defensiveness. What are you thinking? Default reactions tend to be one of the following: 1) why did I bother; 2) you’re an ass; 3) don’t be so sensitive; or maybe even, 4) game on! It’s fair to say that the most common reactions can be less than generous.

What if instead of judging their response, you accepted that any one of these unpleasant responses is a natural, flawed, human reaction to hearing something that hurts. Your feedback probably does hurt. People who care about their work have an emotional attachment to it. Even when the person on the other end says, “it’s not personal, it’s just about the issue.” That doesn’t magically make it true. Constructive feedback hurts, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot.

We know from neuroscience research that emotional pain registers similarly to physical pain. As with physical pain, some people have greater tolerance than others. (If you’re interested in how this system works, start with this article.)  When someone hurts you, it’s natural to fight, to freeze, or to flee. It’s natural for the person to whom you have just given feedback to get angry, or sad, or defensive. Respond accordingly.

“I don’t expect you to respond right now.” “What touched a nerve for you?” “I know it’s tough to hear and as your friend, I wanted you to hear it from me.” “Let’s revisit this next week.”

The exact response isn’t as important as the sentiment. The idea is to have a little empathy for how hard it is to get constructive feedback. Even for the person who values it tremendously, it can take a little time for the sting to wear off.

Please don’t stop giving feedback! Give it carefully and kindly. Even when you do, be prepared that the more accurate your feedback, the more difficult it will be to hear. Try to be more accepting of the responses you might get. Your acceptance will make it easier on everyone involved.

Once tensions have subsided, then you can tell the person what you’ve been wanting to say. “When I gave you the feedback about your report last week and you raised your voice at me, it made me hesitant to be honest with you. I don’t want to get to the point where I withhold these issues. How could it go differently next time?”

Further Reading

Feedforward Instead of Feedback

Giving Feedback to Someone Who Doesn’t Report to You

When Feedback Causes Backlash