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3 lessons from giving and receiving difficult feedback

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

3 lessons from giving and receiving difficult feedback

Few people like giving negative feedback. Being on the receiving end is just as hard.

However feedback that is skilfully delivered provides valuable opportunities to learn – and therein lies the rub! Many of us never learn how to skilfully deliver or receive feedback, and in many cases have been socialised to see negative feedback as a bad thing.

Bill Gates is quoted as saying:

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning”.

That doesn’t mean we should strive to make our friends, colleagues, bosses and customers unhappy. But it’s impossible to please everyone all of the time, and negative feedback is a reality of life.

Three key lessons that I have learned in giving and receiving negative feedback include:

  • Being curious about intent

  • Timing is everything

  • Looking for the learning opportunity

Lesson 1: Be curious about intent

I learnt about intent after watching a video of myself in a role-play. The task was to role-play giving feedback to a consistently difficult colleague. It reminded me of a colleague who struggled to trust team members and was endlessly blaming them for everything. I was particularly frustrated with her and imagined her as the person I was giving feedback to.

When I watch the video I was surprised to see this very visibly annoyed woman (me) on the camera who lectured and belittled the “colleague" for a full 4 minutes before letting her speak! Strangely during the role play I thought I had done more listening than speaking.

When we reviewed the video, I was asked about my intent which I admitted was a reflection of annoyance and frustration with a colleague. In the role-play the “colleague” very skilfully demonstrated how my intent contributed to a singularly frustrating experience and absence of resolution of the issue.

Two years later I was on the receiving end of feedback where the intent was undoubtedly to harm.

The feedback came from someone that was in a very dark angry place in life. Months later this person apologised to me for the impact of that feedback, and admitted that at the time, the intention had been to pass on some of the misery being experienced.

As the giver of feedback:

Be aware of the consequences of your intention. If your intention is to harm, if you know you are somehow going to feel good about hurting someone because you are feeling hurt - perhaps take a step back and rethink your approach. Ask yourself:

  • What is my intention here?

  • What outcome do I want from this feedback?

If your intention is truly to help then give the feedback in the same way you would like to receive it. Focus on the behaviour, impact and action rather than the person. “This work was delivered with half the drawings missing (behaviour), which means I could not deliver the report to the client in time (impact). Please identify and insert the missing drawings by 2pm” (action) is always more constructive than “You are sloppy” (person).

If your intention is to harm – then proceed directly to Lesson 2.

As the receiver of feedback:

Listen. Listen for facts versus opinion. Listen for accuracy and truth. Listen for intent. Listening offers a greater chance to cut through the drama and focus on what you really need to hear. Ask yourself:

  • What might be going on here?

  • What should I be curious about, instead of what should I be defensive about?

  • Where is the truth in this feedback?

Lesson 2: Timing is critical

I can think of many times in my life where I have launched into feedback in an emotional space, where my gut told me to hold off but my intention to really make the feedback impactful, meant that I delivered it with the full brunt of my emotions. In many instances I can see that I would have delivered the feedback very differently if I had been more aware of timing.

In general, I would always suggest providing feedback in real time – i.e. right there and then when the event happens, when it’s fresh in everyone’s mind.

As the giver of feedback:

If you can reign in your emotions, give feedback in real-time. If not wait until you have cleared your head and can focus on the facts.

As the receiver of feedback:

Receiving negative feedback is uncomfortable no matter how skilfully delivered. If the feedback makes you feel emotional and clouds your judgement, ask for time to think about the feedback and schedule time to respond once you are able to do so constructively.

Lesson 3. Look for the learning

There is enormous value in feedback, yet so many people are afraid to ask for it and are defensive in receiving it.

Feedback gives us the opportunity to see ourselves from different perspectives and the opportunity to make a choice to draw from that what is useful, relevant and true. The tendency self-destruct on the basis of blinkered focus on the negative, undermines the value of taking what one needs and discarding the rest.

As the giver of feedback:

If you are struggling to have candid conversations with those around you, as a manager or leader, as a parent, a friend, a client or as an employee, it might be worth asking yourself two questions: what do I want the receiver to learn from this feedback? And if I was on the receiving end of this feedback how would I like to receive it?

As the receiver of feedback:

There will always be feedback that doesn’t resonate and should be discarded as invalid, especially if it’s an opinion rather than a fact. Criticism and negative feedback are a fact of life.

Focus on what you can learn, and then move on.

How is this relevant to the business of being you?

Feedback is an essential part of growth and improvement. The most effective leaders give and seek feedback with the intention of enhancing learning, and developing greater awareness around strengths and areas for improvement.

In the business of being you, strong interpersonal relationships, trust, respect, and the ability to influence is critical to your success. Skilful feedback contributes to all of these aspects. Poorly delivered feedback or even worse, the avoidance of candid feedback, rather than protecting peoples feelings, tends to cause resentment, disengagement and reduced sense of responsibility.

Skilful delivery and receipt of feedback also requires practice. Probably the most challenging and rewarding lesson for me has been associated with just listening. It takes practice and a lot of presence of mind when in the moment the desire to be defensive has the potential to override.

What are you going to practice to optimise how you give and receive feedback?


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