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Deborah Grayson Riegel Headshot

Wow. Ouch. Thanks: How to Hear Feedback Without Fighting It

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Last week, my 12-year-old daughter Sophie was talking to me excitedly about her upcoming cross-country running meet at school. As I was listening (ok, half-listening), I suddenly remembered that I hadn't told her what time I would be meeting her at the race. "Oh, by the way, Sophie," I began. But that's as far as I got. As soon as those words were out of my mouth, my daughter looked me straight in the eye and said, "You know, Mom, you have a habit of interrupting me. That really bothers me. I hope you don't do that to your coaching clients."

Wow.
Ouch.
Thanks.

In three crisp and direct sentences, my tween daughter gave me a piece of critical feedback (yes, meant both ways) about my behavior towards her, and a subtle warning about the potential impact of my behavior on my business. It was short but not sweet. It was clear and clean. It took me by surprise. It hurt to hear. And, ultimately, I was very grateful to hear it.

When in comes to hearing feedback, we can experience a range of emotions and reactions. But in most cases, here are three thoughts that go through our minds:

Wow.
Ouch.
Thanks.

Let's start with the "wow." Many of us say that we want to hear feedback -- the good and the bad. But when it comes down to it, when we do get information about the behaviors we're engaged in that we're not seeing in ourselves, it can catch us off guard. Usually, we are less tuned in to our behaviors (like nagging) and more tuned in to our intentions ("If I'm nagging, it's only because I care!") So when someone holds a mirror up to us that reflects our actions or inactions, it's a "wow" moment. It's like hearing your voice on a recording -- it's hard to believe that this is how you really sound. It doesn't compute. And for many of us, our instinct is to fight the feedback and justify our behavior. But in order for us to learn, grow and improve our relationships in work and life, we need to be willing to hear it. Even if our "wow" feels more like a "whoa!"

After our "wow," many of us move to the "ouch" stage. This is where we have to wrestle with the impact of our actions on the other person. Assuming we believed that the intention behind our behavior was innocent, it can be hard -- or downright painful -- for us to hear that we've hurt another person. Sophie's, "that really bothers me," was a mild statement about the impact of my interrupting, but I have to imagine that, "bothers me," is 12-year-old speak for deeper emotions such as frustration, disappointment and even anger. Did it hurt me to know that I hurt my daughter? Of course it did. And because it was someone with whom I have a close and trusting relationship, I was more likely to feel "ouch" rather than "Hey!" or, "Who do you think you are?" If you're getting feedback from someone whose feedback you don't really want or value, your reaction might feel more resentful than hurt. But if you look deep inside your umbrage or moral indignation, chances are there's still an "ouch" in there.

Which moves us to "thanks" -- even if you didn't solicit the feedback (which I didn't) or welcome the feedback (which I did). There is usually something (no matter how miniscule) to be learned from the feedback we get. Sometimes we will have a giant "aha!" about a habit or behavior that we really need to change. Sometimes we will realize that something in the system (work, family, etc.) needs to shift, and we need to take the lead in making that happen. Sometimes we learn that we were aware of the behavior all along, but needed someone to call us on it for us to do something about it. Maybe the big lesson for us is that we need to learn to hear feedback with open ears and an open mind. In my conversations with my coaching clients (whom I may or may not be interrupting), I often ask them, "What if this were two percent true?" about feedback they hear. Getting the opportunity to learn about ourselves, and to make positive changes, warrants a "thanks." Even "two percent true" is something to be thankful for.

So the next time you're getting feedback about your performance or behavior, recognize that you might be inclined to react instinctively with, "Hey!" "Stop!" "Whatever." Instead, prepare yourself to experience:

Wow.
Ouch.
Thanks.