The etiquette of receiving difficult feedback professionally

You might agree that most unsolicited feedback is perceived as criticism. And, with that in mind, you also may agree that it takes constructive, useful feedback to grow. So, what happens when you receive an idea, criticism, feedback or a “You know, you really should …”?

It is important to realize most people—not all—absolutely do believe their concept, input or perspective is going to be useful. Others—gladly fewer—are downright rude, mean or ill-spirited and enjoy making others uncomfortable, and/or stirring the pot, so to speak. Regardless of the well-intended—or ill-intended—backdrops for people’s input, how do you handle that information professionally and sincerely?

Because you are a person, you will likely take things personally, initially. And that is all right, as you are real and those comments, emails or rumors can be really surprising. Once you embrace that, as a human, you are hugely made up of emotions, you will identify the emotion you feel with “This makes me feel XYZ” versus saying, “you are XYZ.” An example is saying, “In learning that, I am feeling surprised and uncomfortable right now and would like to move through this for learning” instead of, “Well, I’m surprised and uncomfortable, so now what?” With that as your base, considering being positive and productive are not typical experiences, or outcomes, from feedback. Here’s the etiquette of receiving surprising, or difficult, feedback professionally:

• Be grateful. It is best to know where you stand and even if the approach, or words, seem/feel harsh, knowing and moving forward with that knowledge is far better than moving forward without knowing and perhaps causing more damage to a situation, or relationship, and/or perpetuating a misunderstanding. While it can feel forced, the first and best thing to say to someone providing difficult words, or messaging, is “Thank you for making time to let me know” or “Thanks for sharing.”

• Incorporate your empathy. Here’s where you remove yourself from yourself, as much as possible, and truly consider whether or not what was shared has any validity, based on that other person’s perspective. Whether you agree, or not, with the feedback, being open to considering the messenger’s view will allow you to be calm. With that empathy, be open in your heart, and mind, and leave your defensiveness out of this conversation. Take a breath and do take notes. You are able to enhance your calmness with these actions. Instead of shutting the person down by saying “That’s just how I am” or “People are too sensitive.” Try to say “Please know that while this is a surprise to me and I am feeling a little uncomfortable, let me explore how to move through this, please.” And, mean it. 

• Ask for specifics. If the feedback is, “You are always short with people” or “You never speak up and we want a leader who shares passion and purpose,” those can feel biting and yet they are hollow. You’ll likely move positively through the feedback with, “Since this is true for you/some, please tell me something specific that demonstrated my doing that” or “Considering I want to know what context brought this about, please share the last time I did something that reinforced your belief that I always/never do that.” These statements are inquiries for your learning and growth. 

Share what you agree to own and what you will do with the feedback. Based on your notes, share aloud what you heard and then be good at stating, “You absolutely have the right to feel that way” (and mean it). If you are going to change, consider stating, “As a result of this, my plan is to ABC.” If you do not plan to make tweaks based on the feedback, or want more time to process through it, only state the truth, such as, “You were good to share with me and you absolutely have the right to feel that way. While I appreciate your candor, unless there is something else, I am going to continue with my day and take this input as it gets processed. Please know I may, or may not, be implementing what I have decided to take in as feedback and, no matter what, there will be nothing but professional engagement from me following this.” 

Humans have feelings and yours might be firing in many directions. That is OK. You have received a gift. The gift might be that the person is not a good soul for you to be around, if you deem the feedback a true attack or simple opinion. It’s still a gift. The gift could be that you had a blind spot that can now be addressed. That gift saves you days, weeks, months or years of not knowing. That gift could be a relationship-enhancer, where you both share about one another and together you make choices on how to move ahead.

It’s true that most of us are challenged to be grateful, to stay calm and empathetic, to get specific without getting defensive and to get to agreement and yet, doing those things are not simply etiquette, they are empowering, and they are the roadmap to embracing/experiencing difficult feedback, professionally.

Debbie Lundberg is the founder, and CEO, of the Florida-based firm, Presenting Powerfully. She is a 12-time published author, certified virtual presenter, certified life coach, certified leadership coach and certified image consultant. She co-hosts the Business Of Life Master Class podcast. Her book, Remote Work Rockstar, has become a guide for working and leading virtually.

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