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Henley Leadership Group Blog

Handling Feedback With A Cool Head


Three tips to keep your cool - when someone's giving you critical "hard to hear" feedback.

Open leaders are good leaders. Being open means that you are willing to listen to the good, the bad and the ugly. You don’t discourage any communication.  Where it gets tricky is when someone you work with has critical feedback about you.  This is harder to remain open to.  

Let me share with you the three tips I have gleaned from my experience as a leader and coaching leaders.

1.   Find the kernel of truth.If there’s a kernel of truth in that carload of crap, admit it and get on with it.” The key to turning criticism into something useful is to listen for the core bit of truth embedded in the message, and then use it to improve your performance as a leader. Get busy working on the stuff that you can change. 

2.   Breathe and count to ten —then sleep on it. When someone criticizes you, take a breath and count to ten before you speak. The feedback you get won’t always be pretty. It might sound like, “You always…” or “You never…” Those are fightin’ words! But that doesn’t mean you should engage the reptilian brain. This oldest part of the human brain has only three super-limited responses: fight, flight or freeze (and I understand that there is a fourth, rarely talked about survival response - annihilate.) Of course, you don’t want to engage any of these unconscious survival strategies— not at work and not with your colleagues. Instead, take ten deep breaths. This gets the thinking brain – the neo-cortex – back online.  Once you have your wits about you, communicate some form of “thank you for the feedback,” and ask to sleep on it before responding. This guarantees you will have the time and space to formulate questions and a decent response to the person who offered the feedback in the first place. 

3.   Mirror back what you have heard. This third tip may require some new skill. Mirroring is the process of accurately reflecting back the content of a message from a sender. 

Mirroring shows that you are willing to move beyond your own thoughts and feelings for the moment and attempt to understand what your sender is communicating from their point of view. Mirroring allows your sender to send their message again if you didn’t get it right the first time. The key is to paraphrase until you understand what your sender is really saying.

I remind myself to do this when a member of my team shares something with me that triggers me or freaks me out. I say silently to myself: Don’t react, don’t react, don’t react. Instead, I mirror and ask questions to gain more clarity.

Here’s an example.

One of your team members offers, “I feel so unappreciated. You’re too busy to even notice what I’m working on. We’re all pretty burned out.” 

You say, “Let me see if I understand what you said. You don’t feel that I appreciate you or even notice what you are working on. Others feel burned out on the team. Is that right?”

You then ask, “Is there more you want to say?” If your team member has more to say, they send an additional message. You continue to mirror back the added information and then ask, “Is there more?” until they have said everything they wanted to say. The question “Is there more?” is important.

Let the person know that what they’ve said makes sense to you and mention anything you want to say about fixing what’s been pointed to: “Your frustration makes sense to me. I have been too heads-down lately. Thank you for having the courage to come and talk to me directly. I’ll do better.” 

Getting feedback is most often no fun. It’s one of my least favorite parts of being a leader. But the best leaders I have worked with are steady in the face of criticism. They don’t get blown about by every little thing that is said about them. 

Leadership is not about being popular and having everyone like you. If you are doing your job right, you will have critics and naysayers. This isn’t fatal. Don’t let it unhinge your power and influence. Develop the muscle to hear critical feedback, determine what is really worth paying attention to, and get back to work. In the end, you’ll increase trust, respect, and authentic communication among your team.

Previously published on Forbes