Disagreement ≠ Defensiveness

 In Pei Blog

Allow yourself to be influenced by others, but believe in what you stand for. 

Note: This is Part 7 of a 10-part series on feedback.  I’ve compiled the entire series in a free book you can download here.

If you’ve ever seen the cooking competition TV show “Chopped” (or any reality competition show), it’s almost the ultimate sin to talk back to a judge.  I’ve seen cooks try to justify why they made a decision about the flavor or presentation of their dish, and the judges nearly always just shake their heads.  Don’t make excuses.  Stop being defensive.  Know your place… you’re talking back to an Iron Chef!  Those seem to be the unspoken messages to the cooks.

As a result, most competitors tend to stay silent.  They simply hear the judges’ critiques, nod their heads in understanding, and say “Thank you.”

When it comes to receiving feedback, I sometimes feel a similar sense of hesitation or even paralysis after someone has given me some criticism.  Should I just be silent and “take it,” even when I have a thoughtful response, or even if there’s clearly much context the person is missing?  But if I speak up with any of my own thoughts, will they simply think I can’t take constructive criticism, and that I haven’t truly heard them?

It’s a tough thing to figure out.

Here’s the principle I try to operate by:

Allow yourself to be influenced by others, but believe in what you stand for.

Sometimes I hear celebrities or athletes say, “I don’t care what other people think.  I don’t ever listen to criticism, because people don’t know what they’re talking about.”  While this may be true some of the time, I’ve found that the best leaders don’t shut themselves off completely from feedback.  They’re able to listen with an open mind, while not losing confidence in their identity and values as they do that.

So let’s say we’re receiving some constructive feedback.  How can we apply this principle of allowing ourselves to be influenced, while still maintaining our own voice and opinions?  Here are 3 different approaches we can try.  In each case, we should always make sure the other person feels fully heard before we talk!  

  1. Listen first, then ask permission to share.

Like I wrote in the previous post, we can offer our own perspective after we listen.  It is okay to ask a couple of clarifying questions (e.g. “When you said my talk is hard to relate to, do you mean it needs more personal examples, or would something else be more helpful?”).  Just don’t use “leading” questions to make your own point.  (“So do you think I could have possibly had the time to do everything you suggested for this project?”)  : )

After you’ve heard the person well, ask permission to share your own perspective: “Thanks again for the feedback and I’ll take a closer look at what you’re saying.  May I also share some of my thoughts that may provide some context?”

  1. Broaden the person’s perspective.

    Another approach is to say something like:

    “I really appreciate hearing your thoughts. I’ve actually been polling a lot of different people, and some have agreed with what you’ve said, while others have said the opposite.  So I have to look at the entire picture of feedback and then judge how to proceed based on what seems best.”

    Sometimes this can help a person see that not everybody has the same experience they do.

  2. Give them feedback on their feedback.

Most of the time I don’t elect to do this… I only save it for times when a person has been particularly harsh in their criticism. When that’s the case I might say:

“Thank you for caring enough to give me this feedback, and I’ll learn from it.  I do have to confess that hearing it was a little hard for me, given how challenging this project has been.  Next time, it would really help me if you could start by listing a few positive things before diving right into the flaws.  That would help me know that not everything I did was off-course.  Did that make sense… what are you hearing me say to you?”

Fair’s fair.  If someone is going to dish out harsh feedback to you, it’s not too much to ask them to receive some feedback as well — especially if we deliver it graciously.  Maturity doesn’t mean being a doormat.  There are times when people simply won’t “get it” unless we speak up and let them know how their words or actions have impacted us.  We can speak up as long as we do it respectfully.

But wait… there’s more!  Sometimes we can say things to help “guide” others before they give us feedback.  This applies when we’re asking for feedback from others, or entering a situation where we know feedback will likely be offered.  For instance:

“Please be gentle, because this project is a labor of love and I’ve already been through 3 rounds of feedback and revisions.  However, I do still want to hear your honest thoughts.  Can you just list the good along with the bad as you give feedback?”

A lot of people may not know how we’re feeling, or what kind of process or journey we’ve been through, so we have to guide them to help them understand what we need.  I’ve found when I do this, it really helps others, and I have some of the most constructive feedback sessions.

Overall, remember Feedback Principle # 4:

We need to learn to receive feedback well, and grow from it without losing ourselves in the process.

Allow yourself to be influenced by others, but believe in what you stand for.  Or as Rudyard Kipling writes in his famous poem “If”: “Trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.”

In the end, it’s a matter of stewardship.  Why is feedback valuable in the first place?  As we talked about from the beginning, it’s an indispensable tool for our own learning and growth as leaders.  Yes, we will get all varieties of opinions from people with different backgrounds and limited perspectives, and only we have the full picture of all these pieces of feedback.   We have to be the ones to see the kernels of truth in these pieces, to judge which parts need to be contextualized or translated, and then to make the necessary changes and applications in our lives.

But we can only do this if we view feedback as helpful pieces to build us up, rather than break us down.  We can treat feedback like sharp arrows that we try to dodge and yank out when they stick in our skin.  Or we can treat it like segments of a larger mosaic or painting that give us incredible insight we would have missed, without all the various sources of feedback!

In exploring all these techniques and details, let’s not forget the bigger reason why feedback matters.

There are only two more posts in this series but a lot of things I’m still excited to share, so be sure to check back here for more!

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