I recently received very tough feedback. Very tough unsolicited feedback, I might add. It wasn’t fun.

I had known that something had gone wrong in a meeting a few weeks prior. I worried that my drive to action during the meeting hadn’t necessarily helped the situation. What I found out, from the colleague who offered me feedback, was that I had, in fact, unintentionally made things worse.

That was the toughest part of the feedback for me – that my intentions had been completely misunderstood. I had tried to help, and in fact I had made things worse. But honestly, my intentions don’t matter. As much as we write about being intentional, what matters is how I was perceived by the people in the meeting. That’s what I needed to hear from my colleague, and to learn from.

So how did I take in, and how am I taking in, this tough feedback? How can we take in tough feedback – so that it doesn’t devastate us but instead helps us? Here’s what I did, and what I’m doing:

  • Listen – I could feel my ears and brain shutting down as the feedback was shared with me, and I focused more than normal on staying present and open, deeply listening to what was being said to me.
  • Breathe – an antidote to the shutdown? Breathing. The more I made sure I was breathing, and breathing deeply and consciously, the more I could stay present and listen. Breathing deeply and intentionally calms our nervous system, and allows us to think more clearly.
  • Feel – did I mention that the feedback felt devastating to me? I had to allow those feelings to flow through me. Denying them, or repressing them, would have kept my attention away from listening and hearing what I needed to hear. Sure, I cried. That may or may not have been a great thing to do, but the truth is that it hurt to know that my attempts to help so backfired and that I was viewed in a way that is the antithesis of how I want to be in the world.
  • Question – don’t question what they’re saying, question for understanding. At no time did I disagree with the feedback, but if I didn’t understand what was being said, or what my feedback giver meant, I asked. I was emotional. I was not at my best. I had to work hard to grasp what he was saying, and asking questions for clarity is the best way to do that.
  • Process – again, how I was viewed may be the complete opposite of what I intended, but that doesn’t matter. The reality is, there are parts of my style, and of the intensity and passion with which I can approach situations and “problems,” that can apparently backfire on me – and that’s what I need to look at and process. I’ve spent time in self-reflection, processing the feedback and pondering how I could have handled the situation, and myself, differently.
  • Thank – I thanked my colleague who gave me the tough feedback. That can’t have been easy to do. I believe he knows that I was grossly misinterpreted, but again, one last time, that doesn’t matter. He was telling me how my actions and reactions fueled a negative fire. It’s tough to give tough feedback, and I’m grateful to him that he was willing to be my bearer of bad news.

Tough feedback is hard to hear. There’s no other way to look at it. But it can also be helpful, and eventually freeing, if we’re able to take it in and learn from it. It’s a challenge, but one worth taking.

How have you handled – and grown from – tough feedback?
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