How to handle unexpected feedback

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This article has been prepared in collaboration with Alessandra Patti who is a WeWent provider behind Assertiveness & Feedback Workshop.

Feedback is THE topic right now. In a society where the need to speak up is becoming more and more prevalent, it is inevitable that people start sharing their opinion without asking. But, is the feedback we are receiving something that is really going to change our lives? Is feedback useful when not requested or unexpected? Let’s look into this. 

Is it really favour?

As an assertiveness expert, I have been reading possibly all literature regarding this topic, because as soon as you become assertive you become undeniably more prone to receive and give feedback. One of the best books I have read so far (not specifically on feedback but on communication in general) is “Non-Violent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg. He challenges us, through this book, to consider whether we are really doing a favour to a person by giving advice or by immediately reacting to something we listen to. What if the person just wants us to empathize and not necessarily to give an answer or feedback? 

The How vs. What

There is another school of thoughts by Marcus Buckingham, “The Feedback Fallacy”. It says that feedback is useless because it is filtered by our own experience and individuality and it will always be “corrupted” because it comes from personal views on things.

So this school focuses on the WAY to give feedback, on the tone and body language rather than on the CONTENT, because the content will always be filtered and tied to an opinion.

Before you start. Ask yourself these questions:

Before giving feedback to somebody, I would recommend we ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What is my relationship with this person? Am I giving feedback because I truly want them to improve their lives with my comment, or is the feedback coming from MY need?
  • Has the person requested feedback? Is the person ready to take it? Because feedback, of course, can be negative.
  • Do I have enough tools to give feedback in a “non-violent” way? Do I know the proper words so that my interlocutor is not going to respond in a defensive way?

Sometimes we just think we have to be honest with the person we give feedback to. And we use honesty as our defence and our excuse to “attack”. It is not always necessary.

On the receiving end…

But if the words just come out of the person and we are on the receiving end, how can we handle unexpected feedback? Let’s imagine that this person  (a colleague we are not necessarily close to) says to us after we have been giving a very complex presentation, and we are actually still quite tired and totally focused on the outcome of it: “Hey, GREAT presentation, but the clothes you were wearing!! Too much colour. A guy was actually looking at you because he was blinded by the multi-colours you are wearing!”

The intention for such feedback might be making a joke, but for us, through our filter of tiredness and right after a presentation, it can sound absolutely sarcastic and disrespectful.

So, how to handle unexpected feedback?

Here some of the assertive tricks & tips to handle this type of unexpected feedback.

1. Listen

When we receive unexpected feedback we tend to not listen carefully, but immediately start forming an answer in our head while “listening”. Listening carefully will help us better prepare to how to react.

2. Is it a fact or an opinion? 

That you did include all components in your presentation is a fact. That your outfit was too colourful is an opinion. Both may be correct, but sorting out facts from opinion while you’re listening will make it easier to react and respond.

3. What is the intent of that person? 

What has brought this person to make such a comment? Is it someone you know and trust? Can you rely on the feedback? If the answer is yes, pay attention to the feedback. If the person has, for example, a tendency to be provocative, or too dramatic, take the feedback with a pinch of salt.

4. Ask questions to clarify

Focusing on understanding takes us away from getting defensive. It reinforces the listening and takes us away from just justifying our actions.

5. Ask for time 

Unless the received feedback is about something that can be fixed immediately, it’s good to ask for time. The benefits. You set boundaries and flag you are not ready nor it is the best time to talk. It also shows you consider the value of feedback important and want to think about it calmly and carefully. You can also choose the focus of the conversation in the future (e.g. presentation delivery and content instead of clothing).

How to answer

Here are a couple of examples on how to stay assertive when forming your answer:

  • “I appreciate your feedback. I’d like to give what you’ve said some real thought and get back to you. I was not prepared to receive it, yet. I’d be also more interested in feedback about the content and quality of the presentation, rather than the colours of clothing.”
  • “Thank you for the feedback. I will consider this advice for next time. Would you like to add anything regarding the content of my presentation?”
  • “Thank you for your feedback. I’d be curious to know what brought you to comment on the clothes before the actual presentation content?”

Receiving feedback can be tricky, even stressful. Acting angry and in a defensive way won’t bring us far. The point is to embrace feedback when we really consider this can do something for us. When we trust and respect the feedback giver. And we have the right to park it and not overthink it rather than just taking it and feeling bad about ourselves.