Giving & receiving feedback (pt 3)

Gauging the response
As you give feedback, take time to see how it’s landing. Notice the person’s body language and how much they are engaged with you and what you’re saying. Often people shut down when they’re overwhelmed. In physical terms this looks like closing up, shrinking, getting more contained. (Think of a turtle going into its shell and you have a good sense of it.) When a person starts to shut down it’s often hard for them to take any more on board.

I’ve noticed that often at that point I get stronger in my feedback, because I feel I’m not being heard. This, clearly, is not a helpful approach. Better at this point to check in and see how the other person’s doing and what they need in order to continue with the conversation. They might need a break to take on board what you’ve already said, they might need to express some things back to you or something else to allow them to be fully present. Whatever it is, it’s helpful for both of you if you can give that to them before proceeding.

Sometimes it helps to ask the person how the feedback is landing and what they’ve heard so far. If you do this, it’s important to stress that you’re not testing them, but rather that you are checking in to see if your communication is clear enough and giving them space to process it. It’s also a chance to shift the focus from you talking to them talking, which in itself makes a significant change in the power dynamic between you.


Allowing space for discussion
Whatever happens, at some point you’ll have said everything you want to say. Now comes a tricky part! Take a deep breath and ask the person how they’re feeling now and how your feedback feels to them. This is one of the most important things you can do at this moment, because it reminds them that you’re two human beings having a conversation and that you care about their wellbeing. It also tells them that you are not just a ‘strict teacher’ telling a ‘dumb student’ how it is – but a person offering feedback to another person. It gives them permission to feel however they feel about what you’ve said.

So these are some ways in which you can give feedback in a way that’s nourishing and caring, even when it’s difficult. In the next section I’ll talk about how to receive feedback in a way that supports both you and the other person to stay open.


On receiving feedback
As well as learning a lot about giving feedback, I’ve had the mixed blessing of deep learnings around receiving feedback in the past few years. I am, in the words of a good friend, “a flawed character who’s continuously self-improving”. I’m someone who cares deeply about doing things better and receiving feedback is extremely important to me. At the same time I find it hard to receive criticism from others and this makes me defensive when it comes at me.

What I’ve learnt about this, again the hard way, is that being defensive when people give me feedback causes them to stop trying to do so. It unconsciously sends out a message that I am not available to receive that feedback, especially when I argue with someone and try to prove them wrong rather than hearing what they’re trying to tell me.

So this is the first, and most important, thing about receiving feedback: however uncomfortable and difficult it is, try to receive it with openness and gratitude. Breathe deeply, keep your feet on the ground and try not to react! It’s difficult, I know (believe me, I know!) – but this is the best way to allow the feedback to land and to let the other person know that it was worth taking the risk in sharing their feedback with you.

It is, of course, perfectly valid to slow things down and to acknowledge your own feelings of discomfort as the feedback comes in. If you start to feel overwhelmed, it’s really fine to say, for example, “I’m finding it really hard to hear this, can we pause for a moment while I process what you’ve said so far?” This tells the other person that you’re really with them and that you’re trying to stay present but that it hurts. It’s very human and deeply vulnerable.

What works less well is if you start to defend yourself and argue back. Saying something like “I didn’t mean it like that” or “You misunderstood my actions there” tells the other person that you’re more interested in maintaining your position than acknowledging theirs. It says that you are closed to feedback and that you won’t take what they’re saying on board. This is a good way to make yourself unavailable for further feedback from this person.

In practice, this is tough stuff and both of you should be as kind and compassionate as possible as the conversation unfolds. If, for example, as the person receiving feedback I start crying, I may need the other person to stop for a moment and let me feel my feelings more deeply before continuing. Asking for this is a way of honouring the conversation and also taking care of myself.

It’s worth remembering that, however much we wish for the other person to give feedback in a skilful way (following, for example, some of the suggestions above), this may not happen. They may have stored up their feedback for months and be furious by the time they share it. Giving feedback may be really tough for them and that may make them clumsy and aggressive in how they deliver it. As the receiver of feedback, you can only control your reactions. Doing your best to receive the feedback with an open heart and not become defensive is a great way to tell the other person that you really want their feedback.

Of course there may be times when you need to stop things because it’s too much for you, ask them to continue later or even ask them to adjust their tone in order to make it easier for you to receive the feedback. There’s a thin line here between making things palatable and becoming defensive, and how you handle it depends on the relationship you have. If you shift the focus of the conversation onto *how* they’re giving feedback, you are in fact being defensive. If however you say that a slightly gentler approach will help you to receive what they’re saying better, it might make all the difference.

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