When Feedback goes Terribly Wrong

So here’s a question for you. If you give feedback to a friend or colleague, and they disagree with your perspective or don’t take it well, is the fault for the communication breakdown the fault of the feedback giver or the feedback receiver? On the one hand, many of us don’t want to hear negative feedback about ourselves and immediately go on the defensive when somebody gives it to us, even if it’s in our best interest. On the other hand, it is possible to give somebody feedback who neither agrees nor is particularly open to the feedback we’re giving.

I have had this experience during the last few weeks and the personal research shows one thing. I’m not particularly good at receiving feedback I don’t agree with and I am not good at all receiving feedback that is couched in anything that sounds like, “somebody said to me,” or “other people see it this way.” My kneejerk reaction is to respond as if the feedback giver in this case is simply not owning up to their own opinion. That, plus the fact that I can’t clarify or respond to an unnamed source, pushes a button for me that is difficult to unpush. I then become fairly unreasonable and instead of simply saying, “I see, thanks” I tend to go somewhere beyond annoyed and respond in a way that is neither particularly professional nor personally rewarding.

I honestly take responsibility for this, but it makes me think that those of us who coach and teach about giving feedback tend to always take the point of view that if the receiver of feedback is defensive, it is their problem because they aren’t open-minded enough to listen to our well-intended comment. But as I’ve experienced this a couple of times in the last few weeks, I think there is a principle we tend to ignore: The giver of feedback, rather a manager, a coworker, or a friend, has no more or less of a right to give the feedback than the receiver has to ignore it or be offended by it. The balance of responsibility goes both ways and, as I’ve preached for years, intent has very little to do with it. I don’t know your intent, I only know your behavior, and if you intended to be helpful but I took it as offensive, we have both started down a miscommunication path. If I intend to explain myself and you take it as being petty and defensive, the same thing is true.

The problem is that we communicate ourselves into the mess which means we somehow have to communicate ourselves out of it. And we tend to continue the communication about the content of the interaction rather than about the communication breakdown. So here are a few suggestions when you find yourself in this predicament.

  1. Stop the conversation about the content long enough to deal with the conversation about the communication. Falling into, “yes, but you were wrong” kinds of comments are still about the content and are going to simply exacerbate the problem.
  2. Accept that there are at least two parties involved, neither of which probably handled the situation perfectly. That means that the odds are highly stacked that you are likely to also be part of the problem, no matter which of the parties you are.
  3. Figure out what it was about the delivery or the reception that went wrong. In my case it is almost always that I don’t know when to stop talking and just let things go. In other cases it might be that the timing was off, or the phrasing was too personal. Accept that, if the other person perceives it that way, then it actually WAS that way.
  4. Stop being righteous. As I said, my problem is that I tend not to stop talking when I should stop talking. That’s because I know I’m “right,” and I am determined to make sure you know that I’m “right” and eventually concede. Feedback shouldn’t be about winning and losing, although once it feels personal, it can go there easily. Ask yourself with each comment whether or not the process is being helped. And if not…stop talking.
  5. The final one is tough, at least for me. Own your own hurt feelings and let it go. If you were giving the feedback with the best interest of the other person in mind, and they lash out at you, remember that this was always a possibility when you gave the feedback in the first place and that they are likely responding to their own hurt feelings in the process. If you feel angry at the beginning of the process, remember that the person has taken a chance in giving you the feedback in the first place. A little benefit-of-the-doubt goes a long way in both directions.

There’s an old saying about the First Rule of Holes: When you’re in one, stop digging. There are times when the best intentions place us in an awkward, no-win situation. When you’re there, stop digging. Figure out which is most important…that you make your point or that your relationship stays whole. If it is the latter, then you might have to drop the issue regardless of how wrong you think the feedback is or how hard you were trying to help. Once the relationship is broken, it is a much harder task to repair. And in most cases, the content of what is being discussed just simply isn’t worth letting the relationship deteriorate.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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