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How to receive feedback without stress

Not everybody is skilled in providing constructive and respectful feedback. Even with the best of intentions, many managers are unable to give useful feedback without judging, patronizing, or somehow acting superior, while making the other person feel small. When faced with this type of “feedback” (which sounds like criticism), it is natural to feel bad, but we can learn to stay calm and extract only the useful stuff from it.

Giving feedback is an art that very few master.

Many have been trained within traditional patriarchal hierarchies, where the boss must simply instruct and correct (stick without carrot) and the employee must simply accept and execute.

Today of course the context is different: no job is purely executional, everybody at all levels must apply discretion and act as a leader. Thus all intimidation (stick) is counterproductive, and even praise (carrot) may sound manipulative, as long as it comes from a place of unbalanced power; honest trust-based person-to-person communication is the only key to influence, in all areas of business communication, including feedback exchange.

Yet, not many managers are able to deliver a clear, timely, respectful, courageous and generous message that truly helps. Some may have best intentions, but little communication training; some might feel unequal to the task and get so stressed that their message becomes insultingly apologetic; others might have poor emotional intelligence or low empathy; some may simply not care enough.

So, chances are that sooner or later every leader is confronted with a poorly delivered feedback; chances are that the feedback in question is actually a criticism, an attempt to help correct something “wrong”; chances are that the colleague, associate or boss who delivers the message makes it sound like a criticism of the person rather than an observation about a choice of action (e.g. “you are impatient” as opposed to “I noticed your impatience in that situation”).

Of course everybody knows that the best course of action is to “listen carefully without getting defensive and then take time to think”, but how many of us are really able to remember and apply this sound advice in the spur of the moment?

In such a situation, it is normal and human to feel the pain, shame and humiliation of being made wrong or unable: we may feel accused or “under attack”; we experience very conflicting emotions: we want to react to the provocation and defend ourselves with justifications; we want to give it all back and make the “attacker” wrong and unfit in turn; we want to pretend it has not happened and to numb ourselves into denial; we want to run away defeated to lick our wounds in silence.

All this is caused by an automatic defensive reflex that we cannot avoid; what we can avoid, is to indulge into this initial reaction and act from it.

Said in other words: it is fully possible to learn to stay calm, listen carefully to the message, manage our emotions, extract the useful part of the feedback, discard the rest and significantly reduce the emotional distress. But how exactly can we do this, when our reactions are hijacked by emotions?

Learning to manage our emotions in the face of criticism involves 4 steps:

  • Bringing our Awareness to the reaction of our body.
    Our feelings have a physiological manifestation. When we hear a criticism we may notice knots forming in the stomach, clammy hands or accelerated heartbeat. Let’s notice!
  • Bringing our Awareness to the images and stories forming in our mind
    We think in images and inner talks. When we hear a criticism, we start to form images that correspond to the criticism, and begin to form its story. Let’s stay with them!
  • Recognize your automatic digression: catch yourself when the “thinking mind” and the “feeling body” start to have a life of their own; do not act from this place of digression.
    It is well known that the “thinking mind” and the “feeling body” work in synergy: if we “allow” them to expand freely, we risk escalating our interpretation of reality to a point that can often impair our judgment. The earlier mentioned conflicting emotions are a spiral of thoughts (image and stories) and sensations (body feelings) that can cloud our perspective of the reality. When we act based on this clouded state, we act instinctively, we are unlikely to choose the most appropriate behavior, and we usually regret our actions afterwards.
    It is possible to learn to recognize this mechanism and stop it. Am I diverging into remembering the past or anticipating the future? Am I feeling shame for a past event or anxiety for a future possibility? As soon as I catch myself in these digressions, I can disentangle my thoughts and feelings; I can regain emotional control and clarity.
  • Stay focused on the Awareness of current reality. Act from this place of Awareness.
    When we continue to stay focused on the Awareness of the Now (what happens now, what we hear now, how we feel in our body now, and what images are formed in our mind now about the present situation), we are calmer and clearer: we have achieved the emotional control and the clarity of thoughts that allow us to apply the most appropriate behavior. We can listen to the whole message, spot what is useful, set aside the rest, maybe inquire further about key points, or simply acknowledge what we heard and take time to reflect.

With practice, this 4-step process can become automatic. Initially, it helps to pay attention to our breathing, trying to slow it down and make it more regular, to force our body into an open posture (e.g. rolling shoulders backwards, uncrossing arms and legs, lifting chin, and relaxing facial muscles, maybe even smiling). Gradually, it will become second nature, because it feels good and it brings better results; soon enough the “old habit” of confused emotions and instinctive reactions will subside to composure.

For example, let’s say that we receive this feedback: “you jump too quickly to conclusions”.

We may first become aware of a sudden change in our body, like accelerated heartbeat (similar to a state of alert in front of a threat), then our mind may start to form images of other people with disapproving faces, and we may begin to form a story, in which we are fools.

As we start to think of ourselves as fools, we begin to feel nausea and a slight migraine; we try to resist the nausea and remember one instance when we were actually praised for our quick suggestions, so we feel angry and start to sweat at the unfairness of the comment, while starting to craft our defense; this brings both images of victory (with muscular tension like in a fight) and images of doubt (heavy eyelids and shortness of breath), … and so on and so forth.

We are now so involved in this spiral of thoughts and sensations (busy with reliving the past and anxiously imagining the future) that we are completely distracted away from the present reality; we may get so overwhelmed by mixed thoughts and feelings that we act impulsively, defending, avoiding or invalidating the comment. Chances are that we also continue to ruminate about it for hours or days and involve others in our “bad mood”.

Instead, if we focus on the Awareness of Now, this is what happens:

  • We recognize the knots in the stomach and the unpleasant image of ourselves as fools; we stay with it, without letting it control us or drag us away;
  • We might get tempted to plan how to respond next or prepare our defense; we catch ourselves and bring our attention back to the present; or we might start to notice an escalation of thoughts and feelings; we catch ourselves and refocus on the now
  • As long as we stay focused on the now, we are in control.
  • Our reaction is easier; we may say: “I hear you. Can you give me an example? Thanks for sharing your perspective. I will keep it in mind” or any variation of this. No stress!

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