Have you ever asked someone for their opinion about something and received a response that was overly critical, vague, slightly hurtful or down right rude? You ask something like, “How do I look?” And you are met with this reply: “the shoes are ok, but that dress makes you look homely and you really should wear make up.”
What do you do with that response? Do you accept the fact that the shoes are okay and ignore the rest? Should you be hurt or offended?
The fact of the matter is accepting feedback and constructive criticism is tough. Our first inclination is to adopt a defensive posture and either deflect, explain or make excuses for the critical area. Criticism and feedback that are constructive and accurate are necessary evils tied to growth and success. You have to learn how to handle it without lashing out or becoming disillusioned.
Asking the right questions brings the right criticism.
One of the most efficient ways to take some of the sting out of criticism and to ensure it truly is constructive in nature is to ask the right questions. If you ask vague and open-ended questions, be prepared for vague responses that miss the mark. Asking “how do I look,” is an open invitation for abuse. That question leaves nothing–regarding your appearance–out of bounds. However, asking “does the color and style of these shoes work with this outfit,” is a much more precise and targeted question. And you are more likely to get a very targeted and precise answer.
Asking the right questions, tells the critiquer what specifically to focus on. When you request feedback–of any kind–you invite and empower the responder to look for and point out your flaws. The more open-ended and vague the request, the more power you give them. Asking targeted questions not only assists you in getting the appropriate information you need, it also provides the person providing the feedback a clear area of focus. All of their attention is directed to one specific area and this helps to eliminate the tendency people have to look for something to criticize.
Below are a few ways to help you get accurate and targeted feedback:
1. Make your questions as specific as possible.
Ask about specific situations — for example, what could you have done differently in a particular meeting or situation. Avoid the generic “so, how am I doing,” questions and ask about specific aspects of your performance, a particular project or interaction. Tailor your questions to suit the type of feedback you need. Ask both specific and open-ended questions.
2. Ask clarifying questions.
When the critiquer is providing you with feedback, ask questions to ensure you clearly understand what he or she is telling you. Be careful of your tone and body language during this part of the process. You don’t want to appear defensive. The questions should be designed to help you understand the message and it should not appear that you are questioning the individual. Ask for specific examples or instances so that you have a point of reference for the criticism. And finally, when appropriate, solicit suggestions on how you can correct the behavior.
3. Listen and don’t defend.
As humans, we’ve been conditioned to respond not to understand. As soon as we hear a portion of what someone is saying and believe we know where they are headed, we quit listening and begin constructing our response. This is especially true when we hear negative criticism about ourselves. However, if you can learn to take a deep breath and focus on listening to ensure you understand what is being said, you can turn negative criticism into a positive change that moves you forward.
Listening intently, will also help you better decipher between true criticism and criticism that is framed in emotion. Emotions change and criticism birth from emotion, most likely will change as well. Learning to decipher between the two can save you a lot of unnecessary heartache.
4. Consider who you ask.
Before you solicit feedback, consider who you are asking. Is it a friend who is going to tell you what you want to hear? Does this person enjoy having power over you? Does he or she have anything to gain from your interaction? Is this person qualified to provide you accurate feedback? Do you respect the person? Is this person a person of consequence– someone you respect, admire and value in the area in which you are seeking feedback?
Before accepting and internalizing feedback–positive or negative–always consider the source. Some feedback isn’t worth your time or attention.
5. Deconstruct the feedback.
Once you’ve requested, heard and clarified the feedback, then you can process it. Do you have a clear picture of what the issue is? Is this something that you need to change? Is this an isolated incident with mitigating circumstances? What is the context and sub-context of this issue. Is this something you can change? Do you have a plan to address this issue if it needs to be addressed?
If you can’t answer these questions, you may need to go back and ask more clarifying questions or seek a bit more insight.
6. Evaluate the feedback.
The final step in soliciting and accepting life-changing feedback is a process of evaluation which you must do for yourself. You must answer the question–is this something I should accept, internalize and work on? Do you agree with all or some of what you’ve heard? You make this decision after you’ve considered the source and all the surrounding circumstances. If you’ve correctly completed the other five steps, the answer will be obvious. You’ll know if the feedback is valuable or not–even if you don’t like it.
Getting useful feedback is one of the fastest routes to growth and improved performance. It’s not always an accurate reflection of who you are — but it is an accurate reflection of how you’re perceived. Knowing how you’re perceived is critically important if you want to increase your influence as a leader, or move up within your organization. Hearing the truth can be tough, however, not hearing it could be detrimental.
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