When feedback triggers backlash

September 25, 2016 3coze

I love the questions I get at the end of a keynote. This week I got a couple of really good ones. The first was, “How do I handle it when someone asks for feedback and then responds poorly when I provide it?” The best answer starts long before you have someone yelling at you. Let’s start at the beginning.

Get clear marching orders

When someone asks for feedback, make your life a little easier by asking them what kind of feedback they’re looking for. When you get the request for feedback, simply say, “I’d be happy to give you feedback. What types of things would you like me to look for?” If the person wants your input on the content of their presentation, don’t give an earful on their vocal ticks. This one step will save you a world of grief.

Give objective observations

When you deliver your feedback, make it as objective and descriptive as possible. If you’re talking about the content of the presentation, stick to observable descriptions such as “There were five slides about the target market and only one about the proposed solution.” That feedback will land much more constructively than saying, “Your presentation was very skewed toward the target market,” or worse, “You totally underplayed the proposed solution!”

Give your opinions and perceptions

It’s completely ok to include subjective descriptions in your feedback, they just need to be about you, not about the other person. It’s helpful to share how the person’s choices about the presentation content affected you. “When there were 5 slides about target market and only one about the proposed solution, it made me nervous that the solution isn’t well defined yet.” “I didn’t come away with confidence that we know how to address this market.”

In my experience, feedback delivered on a topic that’s been agreed upon, focused on objective observations of behavior, and with impact that is shared only as your perception rather than as the truth is much less likely to elicit a poor reaction than your average garden-variety feedback. That said, it’s still possible you’ll get a negative reaction.

Negative reactions

I want to pause and spend a moment on what you perceive as a negative reaction to feedback. I think for many of us, “negative” reactions are synonymous with emotional reactions. Anger, frustration, sadness, embarrassment might all be classified as negative reactions to feedback but I encourage you to think differently. If you see anger or sadness, it probably means you’ve touched a nerve and hit on something deeply personal. That likely means you gave important feedback. So while evoking yelling or tears might be uncomfortable, it’s not necessarily a bad reaction to feedback.

If they yell

If someone gets angry or defensive in response to your carefully crafted feedback, then you need to give them some more feedback. If the person is calm enough to deliver it in the moment, go ahead. If not, return to the issue once she is calm. “You asked me to give you feedback on your presentation and I did. When you yelled at me in response to that feedback, it made me feel very uncomfortable. What was behind your reaction?”

If they cry

If you really hit a nerve with your feedback (perhaps because it was bang on and provided evidence of something the person hoped wasn’t true), you might see tears. Don’t run. Simply ask “Is it ok to continue?” in a friendly and casual tone. It fine to say something like “It seems like this is an important issue for you. Tell me what you’re thinking.”

If they defend

Perhaps the most common unpleasant reaction to constructive feedback is when the person disagrees and defends. If you get “but…” followed by a litany of excuses, just stay calm and state the obvious. “You asked that I give you feedback on the content of your presentation. I told you how it left me feeling when you had more slides on the target market than on the solution. That’s my perception.”

Next time

If the person has reacted by dismissing, ignoring, or debating your feedback, it’s worth asking if they want feedback again in the future. “I gave you feedback as I said I would. If you’d like more feedback in the future, let me know.” If you aren’t the person’s manager, I would wait until you’re asked explicitly before providing feedback again. ‘Cause really, who needs to go to the effort of providing feedback to someone who so blatantly devalues it.

Other feedback

I said up front that the way to minimize the negative reactions to feedback is to ask specifically for what the person would like you to comment on. That said, it’s possible that you’ll have a perspective on something that wasn’t part of the agreement (such as the person’s vocal delivery of the presentation). In this case, after you’ve delivered the feedback about the agreed upon topic, ask if the person would like any other feedback. “I noticed a couple other things that might help you strengthen your presentation, let me know if you want any feedback on those things.” That way you give the person a sense of control over the sensitive information that might be coming at them.

Feedback is really valuable and sometimes hard to swallow. Don’t be surprised if your feedback creates a strong and even aversive reaction in the moment. Respond appropriately based on what you see.

Further Reading

Maybe You Shouldn’t Give Feedback

How to Give Feedback to Someone Who Doesn’t Report to You

Unconventional Wisdom on Constructive Feedback

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