Turn Negative Feedback Into Insight

Are you a better than average driver? Do you have above-average intelligence? Do you do an above-average job at work?

Go on, be honest. Don’t be humble.

If you wanted to answer “yes”, don’t worry – you’re in good company. Almost everyone does.

Clearly it’s mathematically impossible for almost everyone to be above average. Besides, we encounter below-average people all the time. How many times have you muttered to yourself on the commute home about bad drivers? Or if I ask you to think about an under-performing co-worker, I bet a face materialises in your mind’s eye!

(Of course I’m sure that you, dear Reader, are one of the genuinely above-average ones!)

So why do we over-estimate our own abilities and competencies? Is it arrogance?

Cornell University social psychologist David Dunning suggests it’s closer to ignorance. We’re often blind to our own shortcomings. I suspect there’s a relationship with “unconscious incompetence” in the “4 stages of learning” model, or the “blind spot” in the Johari Window.

Dunning also found a relationship between the level of competence and the degree of over-estimation.

In collaboration with Justin Kruger, their studies resulted in something we now call the “Dunning-Kruger” effect. This is where people with a little knowledge or skill over-estimate their competence in that area. I’m sure we can all think of examples in both professional and political arenas!

Nobody is immune. But if we all carry this cognitive bias around with us, how do we deal with it? How can we tell when to take feedback on-board or stay the course? There’s a paradox with trying to see your own blind-spot.

How we manage and process feedback makes all the difference

Effectively handling feedback

Unfortunately, here we run into other problems. While we may claim to value honest opinions, we don’t always enjoy being on the receiving end. It’s very easy to disregard feedback that nips at our ego or doesn’t align with our worldview (confirmation bias).

Also, how do we differentiate between sincere, constructive feedback and negativity with a parochial agenda?

Sure, tone and style of delivery gives us a clue. I’m not talking about people who spew venom over the internet from behind their keyboards. Those clowns are easy to identify.

I’m referring to the social inhibitions that make it uncomfortable to speak plainly with someone you actually know.

For example, if you tell me my bum doesn’t look big in this, are you being sincere or just polite?

Apparently the current vogue is for a larger posterior…although my wife has pointed out that this doesn’t apply to middle aged men! 🙁

Anyway, somehow we need to handle the feedback we get no matter how it’s given. How can we do this?

Focus on the signal, not the noise

12 Angry Men (United Artists, 1957)

I once had a co-worker once was notorious for having strong opinions and expressing them robustly. I noticed that she often had valid points to make but people were missing it because they were lowering their mental “blast shields”.

In fairness, most people are not very good at delivering negative feedback in a way that’s comfortable to hear. When you get feedback, focus on the message. Identify the key points and determine which are facts and which are opinions.

“It’s not what they said, it’s how they said it” is a common excuse for reacting badly to feedback. So what? The delivery may be noisy but there’s a signal in there. Find it.

Resist a defensive counter-attack

Poorly delivered feedback, especially when we feel it’s not fair, can raise our hackles. The urge to retort, refute what they’re saying or justify yourself will be considerable.

Resist that urge. Maintain your composure. Trying to counter-punch and prove the other person wrong won’t help you. It certainly won’t help working relationships.

Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with their feedback and composing your retort, try to identify what they’re trying to tell you. Perhaps there are some underlying points that are valid?

Also, people forget to apply Hanlon’s Razor and misinterpret something they don’t understand or disagree with as a malign agenda. This happens a lot with communication gaps. If people don’t know what’s going on – or why something is happening – they’ll fill the explanatory gap with their own interpretation. And who makes up good news?

The best approach is active listening; pay attention, nod to show that you’re listening and ask clarifying or confirming questions. For example, “just to make sure I understand, is what you’re saying…?”

This can also help you uncover the true issues buried in a poorly presented message. There’s always a reason why people hold the views that they do (even if those views seem unreasonable or irrational). It may take practice to reign in your defensive instincts, but each time you practice it, you’ll get better at it.

Use time to your advantage

Don’t try to respond immediately. Ask for time so that you can process the feedback. For example, “let me consider what you’ve said and get back to you.”.

Buying time is incredibly useful. For starters, it can help any negative emotional reactions subside. It also allows you time to analyse the feedback (as per the above), identify any valid points and then compose a rational and reasonable response.

This improves the chances that you’ll take on-board the things you need to. It also means that the other person is more likely to accept any counter-arguments or explanations you want to make.

Simply put, use time to defuse any emotion, evaluate any criticism and identify what’s valid or invalid in the feedback.

Closing thoughts…

Criticism is hard to take, especially when it collides with our self-image or touches a nerve. I’ve only really touched on a few of the things you can do to handle such feedback but some of these are good, generic approaches to managing conflict in general.

Feel free to share your thoughts on how you’ve approached similar situations. What worked and what didn’t?