I’ll never forget the day that my leadership coach made my cohort of young professionals practice the art and science of giving and receiving feedback. This was a few years back, when I was c-level executive at Polymer Solutions. We had to stand up, walk around the room, look each cohort-member in the eye and provide positive feedback and then provide challenging feedback.
Consider this: we also had to receive positive and negative feedback, multiple times over!
It was extremely uncomfortable but such an important exercise that has stuck with me. I find growth often happens in uncomfortable places.
On that day, I heard generous affirmations about my communication skills, interest in others and thoughtful contributions to the group. I also heard that sometimes when I’m listening intently I look angry or too intense. However, the most challenging feedback I received was about my wardrobe.
I was provided feedback that in order to be taken seriously as a young leader, with a big role, I needed to dress the part and have gravitas. Initially, I wanted to reject the feedback — I was insulted and found it petty. On that day, I was dressed with my mothering duties in mind and a focus on the practical demands of me once work was over. I immediately wanted to be defensive, explain away or argue against what I had just heard. But, then I took a deep breath and realized there were valuable nuggets of truth nestled within the challenging information.
I realized that not everyone will have the opportunity to personally interact with me, hear my thoughts and consider my contributions. We are a society that consumes visually and as such, first impressions really do matter. Especially as I am both a young(ish) leader and female. I have to be mindful of the way my physical presence contributes to the impression I intend to make. Does it irk me that this matters? Yes, it most certainly does. However, knowing what I’m up against I am willing to consider how to pivot my approach.
In the emotionally safe confines of our leadership cohort I knew that all of the feedback provided was done so with my best interest in mind and because it was part of an activity. It gave me the opportunity to really hear what was being said. Although, I will admit the wardrobe feedback was harder to receive than the rest (go figure). When I was able to really hear what was being said, past my walls of defensiveness, I learned that there was valuable information for me to consider.
Was it hard to receive that feedback? Most certainly. But since that exercise, I have walked through life with the tools necessary to cope through tough conversations. In the end, it wasn’t the information about my wardrobe that was transformative, it was the experience of receiving challenging information that changed me for the better as a friend, mother, wife and leader. Now, I have a mantra I repeat to myself when I am processing tough input from others: it is information, not insult.
How will you characterize your interactions?
Without question, there are times bosses, employees, coworkers, friends or even family members may provide you feedback. Sometimes the feedback will come from a loving place of care (a “care-frontation”) and sometimes the feedback is mean-spirited and intended to be an insult. Regardless, I challenge you to decide how you will characterize the interaction. Will you see it as insult or information? Will you take self-ownership for how that feedback is defined?
Even when receiving the lowest of blows I challenge myself to say, “this is interesting information. What can I gain from this?” There have been times that I have realized I’m perceived differently than I thought (like with my wardrobe). In other instances, the information is about a need to slow down, listen carefully, and take better notes. The information and insight is there if you are willing to take a deep breath and push through the defensiveness.
In order to gain from these interactions we must be willing to linger in uncomfortable places and to not distort what we hear with emotion and angst. Focus, consider and process. Remember that you are not shaped or defined by the feedback — unless you choose to give it that ability and authority within your life. Sometimes, it is good to let what we learn from others inform who we continue to become. There is always something to be learned and an opportunity to grow if we are willing to see feedback as information, not insult.