Seven Steps to Overcome “Feedback Allergies”

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Imagine walking through a rose garden. The flowers in full bloom. The warm air rich with floral perfume.

Are you smiling or sneezing?

It depends on your immune system. Some people’s immune systems defend against roses. Put them in a rose garden and their immune system goes into full defense mode. They don’t inhale the beautiful perfume. They sneeze, tear, and wheeze.

Their immune system detects the rose scent as a threat, an alien invader to be kept out of the body at all costs.

Most people have the same reaction to feedback.

After 25 years of working with thousands of people in organizations of all kinds, it’s clear to me that most people are allergic to feedback. Particularly critical feedback.

The degree of allergic reactions varies.

Some people have full-blown allergies. They can’t take even the hint of critical feedback. It throws them into full defensive mode. Others are just mildly allergic. After an initial defensive reaction, they’re able to take in, absorb, and benefit from critical feedback.

What causes this allergic reaction?

Physically the immune system is designed to identify and destroy alien elements that threaten your bodily health. But, when your immune system makes a mistake – and interprets a harmless (or even beneficial) substance as a threat – you have an allergic response. It’s your body’s over-blown defensive reaction, not the “allergen” that makes you sick.

The same pattern operates on the psychological level.

While feedback isn’t life threatening, psychologically, critical feedback can feel like it’s threatening your:

  • Reputation
  • Safety
  • Competence

In short, feedback can threaten you identity.

And so your mental/emotional defense mechanisms kick into gear – to reject the feedback.

“Allergic” responses to feedback include:

  • Rationalizing
  • Explaining
  • Devaluing
  • Arguing.

These are all strategies to protect you from the perceived threat and to eliminate the unwelcome feedback.

But, being allergic to feedback is a mistake.

Defending against feedback – even when it’s presented unskillfully -undermines relationships, limits learning, and restrains your development.

You can’t really control how other people will give you feedback. But, you can learn to minimize your allergic response so you can strengthen relationships, maximize learning, and accelerate your development.

Here are seven steps to eliminating feedback allergies:

1) Recognize the power of your influence

One of the most common ways of defending against critical feedback is to define it as “just their perception”. There’s some truth in this, of course. If they’re offering you the feedback, it is their perception.

But, what shaped, triggered, created that perception? You did.

Rather than think of their feedback as “just their perception”, realize that their assessment of you is something you created. Recognize the power of your influence. You may not like the assessment you’ve created. But, you can claim the power of your influence, nonetheless.

This shift is powerful. It situates you not as a victim of other’s (distorted) perception, but as an influencer, a creator of others’ responses and assessments. From this foundation, you can choose to change the ways you act and interact – in order to re-shape others’ assessments in ways that reflect your values and goals.

2) Appreciate their positive intentions

Even if the person giving you feedback is yelling and screaming – don’t be thrown into an allergic reaction by their words, tone of voice, facial expression. (This is not easy. But it is necessary.) Rather, tune into their positive intentions. Even if it’s simply that in giving you feedback they’re helping you understand more about how you’re behavior impacts them.

Assume that underneath their emotionality and unskillful words – there’s much of value for you to learn. They’re offering those learning to you.

Maybe not in the most elegant package. But, they’re offering it nonetheless.

Appreciate their willingness to let you know about the how you’re impacting them. Appreciate the courage it may have taken to bring this to you. Appreciate that they don’t want to keep you in the dark. That they want to make things better.

Attuning to their positive intentions allows you to discern the useful information and ignore the emotional noise (that could trigger your own allergic response).

3) Trim the fat

Most people don’t know how to present feedback – particularly critical feedback – skillfully. They come to the conversation upset, overwhelmed, nervous, anxious. So their delivery may not be clear, focused, or easy to understand.

They say things like:

  • “You’re not a team player.”
  • “You’re too aggressive.”

This kind of feedback is loaded with fat words. Fat words have many layers of meaning. Fat words are not specific.

To make behavioral shifts that will create more positive assessments, you need to trim the fat off these statements. You need to get down to more specific, behavior descriptions.

You do this by honing in on a specific example, a triggering incident where you behaved in ways that created the “negative” assessment.

Ask:

  • “Tell me about a time when I wasn’t being a team player – what do I do or say?”
  • “Give me an example of when I’m being too aggressive – what do I do or say?”

When asking these kinds of fat-trimming questions – be genuinely curious. Seek to connect the dots between your specific behaviors and their assessments and reactions.

4) Check your intentions

As you learn more about the things you do and say that have been creating “negative” assessments in others – reflect on your own intentions.

Go back to the triggering event. Reflect on:

  • What is it that you were thinking and feeling at the time?
  • Were you emotionally reactive?
  • What goals were you focused on achieving?
  • How aware were you of the impact you were having on others – at that moment?

Most often, when your behaviors are triggering negative responses in others, you’re being emotionally reactive yourself. Check it out.

Reflect on the connection between your internal emotional state, your actions – and others reactions to you. This will give you deeper insight into how you can act with personal integrity – while creating assessments in others that strengthen relationships and achieve important goals.

5) Generate Options

Once you understand the specific actions that have been creating negative assessments, engage the other person in defining new behavioral choices.

Ask questions like:

  • “If I were acting like a team player – what would I do and say?”
  • “What are ways of acting and speaking that you’d appreciate non-aggressive?”

At this point, you’re interested in defining, in as lean terms as possible, the kinds of behaviors that will shift the other person’s assessment.

There are lots of options. So, use this stage of the feedback process to brainstorm. Offer suggestions. Get their response. Make this a fun, collaborative process.

6) Test Drive the New Behaviors

Once you have a sense of the kinds of behaviors that the other person is asking for – take them for a test drive.

You don’t need to wait for a future event to arise. You can test drive the new behaviors right in the moment – using a scenario process.

Think of a likely scenario, a future situation – one that’s challenging. Imagine a situation that would typically cause emotions, reactions, and tensions to arise. Make it dicey. Then describe the likely scenario and include new ways in which you intend to act and interact (ways that reflect what you learned when you were generating options).

Ask:

  • “If I were to act like that, how would that work?”

Get their feedback. Together discuss ways that you might fine-tune your behavior to make it even more effective.

7) Agree to learn your way forward (together)

Make your commitment to follow-through – to practice the new behaviors. Ask for their support and commitment to keep giving your feedback.

Restate your appreciation for their willingness to bring you this tough feedback. And reinforce the importance of on-going dialogue. Don’t promise perfection. Rather, ask for support and feedback if you start to “slip into old ways”.

Using these seven steps to eliminate feedback allergies so that the next time some one brings you critical feedback – it will be as sweet to you as a blooming rose.

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