Most of us can remember a time we received harsh criticism at some point in our lives. It may have come unexpectedly, like in the middle of a meeting, a drive-by comment in the hallway outside your office, over the counter in an exchange with a customer, or via an innocent and brutally honest observation “from the mouth of babes” (like my 6-year-old).
But when we’re “feedsmacked” by harsh and negative criticism by a colleague or boss about our behaviors, and there’s truth attached to it, it can deliver a psychological punch that triggers shame, anger, and even causes us to shut down or withdraw.
Naturally, anyone with good advice would point to improving the messenger delivering the harsh criticism. But should we flip the tables? What if we learned to bounce back from harsh criticism by managing the internal feelings that come after being “feedsmacked”?
That’s the premise behind best-selling author and leading social scientist Joseph Grenny’s most recent Harvard Business Review article, which highlights a study his team conducted asking people about the hardest feedback they ever received.
He writes, “I’ve spent much of my life believing that the best way to help people receive and act on negative feedback is to help those who are delivering it to improve their message. But I’m now convinced I was wrong.”
Grenny outlines four steps that can help us stay more present in the moment so we can respond in a more productive way when harsh feedback comes our way:
1. Collect yourself
Grenny advises that we breathe deeply and notice how we’re really feeling. The more connected we are with our primary emotions, the less we become consumed with “secondary effects like anger, defensiveness, or exaggerated fear,” says Grenny. By connecting yourself to soothing truths and repeating a phrase like, “This can’t hurt me. I’m safe,” the more aware you become of your true emotions.
Seek to understand by being curious and asking the other person for details about, and examples of, the behavior they’ve highlighted. And then listen calmly, as if the conversation is about someone else. “Simply act like a good reporter trying to understand the story,” writes Grenny.
When we receive harsh criticism, it’s totally fine to give yourself time to process what you’re feeling and let the other person know that you need to reflect and come back later after you’ve evaluated what was said.
As you process the feedback, be humble enough to look for “kernels of truth” and scour the message until you find it, says Grenny. Then, if necessary, re-engage the person and share your thoughts by acknowledging what you heard, what you accept, and what you commit to doing.
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