Cultivating criticism through coaching

ListeningWe all know that feedback is crucial as a means of measuring how we are performing, being perceived and to help us develop. Yet we have a love-hate relationships with it; we love hearing were doing well and are on track for the next promotion and yet hate it when it makes us feel threatened or left feeling anxious!

According to Heen & Stone from the Harvard Law School feedback strikes at the tension between the need to learn and grow and the need to be accepted the way we are. As a result sometimes even a seemingly benign comment such as “Well your presentation was certainly interesting” can trigger an emotional reaction and bring communication to a halt.

Getting better at receiving feedback and managing those feeling can be categorised into three areas.

Truth triggers these are set off by the content of the feedback that is when the advice or comment seem unhelpful, untrue and makes you feel wronged

The relationship trigger is often coloured by what you believe to be the hidden-agenda of the giver or, you doubt the credibility of the interaction – although, given by someone else you may well accept it

The identity trigger is based on the underlining relationship you have with yourself. Whether the advice is right or wrong it can have devastating impact on your sense of self-worth and leave you feeling overwhelmed defensive and off-balance.

Once we understand which of our triggers is being pushed, we can become a better receiver.

Taking feedback is a process of sorting and sifting. You need to understand the other person’s point of view and look at ideas that may seem a bad fit and try a different way of doing things. And if the review seems genuinely misdirected or untrue, discard or shelve it. But it’s nearly impossible to do any of these things from inside a triggered response because instead of creating an environment of learning your triggers will reject, counter-attack or withdraw.

The six steps below will help you from discarding valuable feedback and just as damaging, accepting and acting upon comments that you would be better off disregarding. Whilst they are designed to give advice to the receiver, they are equally as powerful as a means of understanding the challenges of the giver in order to help them be more effective.

  1. Know your tendencies: Are you a defensive person by nature or do you smile on the outside but seethe on the inside? Or do you defend yourself on the facts, or perhaps get teary? Know yourself, and once you understand your operating procedure you can make better choices. For example “I know that if I remove myself from the situation and unpack what has been given to me, I’m able to pick out the gems. I just need time”.
  2. Disentangle the “what” from the “who”: If the feedback is on target and the advice is wise, it shouldn’t matter who it comes from. But it does. When the relationship trigger is activated, entwining the content of the comments with your feelings about the giver (even where, how or when it was given) is short-circuited.
  3. Lean toward coaching: ratings and evaluations tell you where you stand. Coaching allows you to learn and improve and play at your highest level. Hearing that you “might consider increasing your executive presence” can set off your identity trigger and the resulting anxiety can drown out the opportunity to learn. So whenever possible, lean towards coaching. Work to hear feedback as potentially valuable advice from a fresh perspective rather than as an indictment of how you’ve done things in the past. Take it rather as a feed-forward opportunity rather than a criticism of past endeavours.
  4. Unpack the feedback: Often it’s not immediately obvious whether the feedback is valid and useful. When we hear feedback, before rejecting it we need to understand what it really means. For example if you are told by an experienced colleague to be “more assertive”, you need to know what that really means. This requires a clarifying discussion through asking a number of specific questions which include what prompted the comment, what did you do or fail to do, what was specifically expected of you? In other words, before making a snap judgment, take the time to explore where the feedback is coming from and where it is going. You can then enter into a rich and informative conversation – whether you decide to take the advice or not.
  5. Ask for just one thing: Feedback is less likely to trigger an emotional reaction, if you request and direct it. Vast amounts of information resulting from an annual review can be overwhelming and confusing. Rather by posing specific, bite-sized questions at targeted individuals such as “Where is one area in which you think I could improve” you are more likely to hear themes and work out where your growth lies. Research shows us that those individual who are constantly seeking feedback tend to get the highest ratings because those asking for coaching are most likely to take it on and genuinely improve. By asking for feedback you not only find out how others see you but influences how they see you. Soliciting constructive criticism communicates humility, respect and a passion for excellence all in one go.
  6. Engage in small experiments: When you are not sure whether the advice that has been given you is worth following, try it out and solicit more feedback. Test it out, if it works great if it doesn’t you can try again, tweak your approach or decide to end the experiment.

Criticism is never easy to take even though we understand its benefits. It can trigger psychological reactions and leave you feeling misjudged, ill-used or even threatened to your very core.

Your growth depends on your ability to pull value from criticism in spite of your natural response and may it the most important factor in your own development. If you’re determined to learn from whatever feedback you get, no one can stop you.

Executive Coach supporting Female Directors
Focus: Pat is an exceptional ‘results based’ Executive Coach whose particular niche is developing a leader’s confidence to challenge themselves to perform at a higher level in their current role or advance to their next role in the organisation.

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