Saturday, August 21, 2010

Working with Critical Feedback

People work with information in an amazing variety of ways. Understanding this on a practical level is one of the key insights into how to help groups function well. Often, when a person works differently than you, there's a tendency to jump to the conclusion that they either didn't hear correctly, or that they're ignoring what was just passed along if they're not responding in the way that you would with the same circumstances. While either of those interpretations may be correct, there is a profound third option: they process information differently than you do. And it may take a while to tell which of the three it is.

While this dynamic goes on all the time—people handling information differently—it's especially potent in the context of how people work with critical feedback. As you can imagine, this territory is tricky enough in the context of intimate relationships; it's exponentially more challenging with a bunch more people added into the equation, none of whom you may know as well as you do your partner.

Having just been on the receiving end of a serious load of critical feedback [see my previous blog, Tough Love from a Close Friend], I thought I'd share today how I labor with feedback—which may bear no relationship at all with how others handle it.

1. My initial work is to check for an emotional response. If the comments are surprising (that is, if I'm hearing the criticism for the first time—note that this is not necessarily the same as being told it for the first time) or are especially close to the bone (by which I mean reflections about how I'm not acting in alignment with my core identity) then I'm more apt I to respond emotionally and defensively. If for some reason I don't have a strong emotional response, then I can skip this step.

But let's suppose I do have an emotional response. If I'm out of control (always a possibility), I simply blurt out my response and we're off to the races. It's a knife fight on the plenary floor. There's no thinking involved; it's pure reaction.

However, there's a subtler version of this that's sometimes in play, and toward which I try to steer things. Sometimes I can feel the emotions welling up and resist acting on them as a survival imperative. Sometimes, my reptilian brain does not take control. In these situations, I make a decision that is situation specific. I look inward to identify the feelings and then assess my prospects that the audience in front of me can handle my expressing those feelings. In most groups, for example, my expressing fear, sadness, or despair has decent prospects for being heard well. In contrast with that, my expressing anger, irritation, or outrage may have no chance of leading to anything other than a thermonuclear exchange. Mind you, I'm projecting possibilities onto the field while in a state of distress, so there's no telling how accurately I'm seeing the situation; I'm just telling you how I've learned to cope.

Sometimes it works for me to come back at a later time and report on my emotional responses when I'm no longer in my feelings, and that can be less incendiary. (The point being that remembered anger stands a better chance than fulminating anger of being received as insightful, rather than incitement.) This is not simple stuff, and I'm making a delicate assessment about whether it will ultimately go better if I take off the gloves and let 'er rip, or set aside my emotional response until I can figure out a way to better package it for digestibility without sacrificing authenticity. (If that sounds confusing, think about how often sadness or fear underlay anger. Where you can find this link and skip the step where you express the anger, it may help your audience bridge to your experience without saying anything false.) Hint: my assessment about what's possible with my audience is strongly affected by whether we have an agreement about how to handle strong feelings as they occur, and whether we the skill to back that up.

2. Next I ask clarifying questions (which don't land neutrally if the queries are loaded with unacknowledged emotional affect), in an effort to make sure I understand fully what's been said and how that was rooted in the observer's experience of me.

3. If I can find evidence within myself that there's truth to the observations or I care enough about my relationship with the observer (note that I said "or" not "and"), then I go through a "catastrophizing" phase where I dwell in a personal hell of all the bad things that this can mean if fully true. This includes the ways in which I'm failing in my responsibilities, the ways in which I'm destructive of relationship, and the ways in which I'm venal and out of integrity. This is a very dark process and I try to conduct this phase in as isolated a setting as possible. (Take my word for it, you don't want to be in the room.) After nailing myself to the cross, it
typically takes me about three days to rise again—which I reckon is the usual recovery time from crucifixions.

The point of this is that I completely mistrust my own ability to put a good spin on events (all the way up to denying that the sun rises in the East) and fail to take advantage of how others are reporting a noticeable gap between my words and actions. While the truth (such as we can know it) is rarely as bad as I can imagine it to be, it is also probably worse than I'll admit on the first pass. Thus, I've learned to go through this purgatory step as a way to better balance my ultimate response.

While in this phase, I inventory my conscious experience, looking carefully for evidence that the accusations are true at least some of the time. I approach this work as dispassionately as possible, so as not to miss the chance to validate the observer's comments.

4. Where I can find evidence that validates the criticism (sometimes it is enough that there's overwhelming plausibility, by which I mean that it makes no sense to me that I would have been completely oblivious to a thing, even though I have no conscious memory of awareness), my next step is to let go of my knee-jerk story of innocence (or significantly reduced culpability), and embrace that I actually did the ugly thing I'm accused of. (The beauty of this process is that you can back away from the trap of insisting on knowing the Truth about what you did or didn't do; so long as you can imagine that you might have done the bad thing, it's generally better all around if you just accept that you did it, and shift your focus to constructive responses.)

5. Next I develop a picture of what kinds of behavior change are called for and practicable. In essence, I'm trying to figure out what am I willing to do differently. Putting these changes into effect generally means a lot of conscious focus and discipline. While it tends to be challenging, it is nonetheless possible.

6. Finally, I report to the observer(s) what I've been able to accept about their criticism and what I'm prepared to do about it as a prophylactic against repetition. To the extent possible, I try to offer attempted behavior changes unilaterally, rather than as part of a quid pro quo.

Often, I'll have requests of the observers of two kinds:
a) What things can I do that will help you believe that I'm taking your feedback seriously and genuinely working to repair the damage to our relationship? While I may be unable or unwilling to attempt everything I get in response to this request, there will generally be things I can embrace.

b) Are you willing to give me reflections (especially in the near term, when my proposed behavior changes are not yet well-formed as new patterns) on how I'm either doing better or not doing better with respect to the dynamics in question?

• • •
Personal growth work is, not surprisingly, very personal. While I'm pleased to share with readers this outline of how I approach it and why, I'm pretty humble about this and make no claims about superiority. It's just what I do. Not only is personal work a matter of different strokes for different folks, but a good many never put their oar in the water. And it's understandable: personal growth hard work with uncertain results.

I laughed when a good friend sent me an email after reading my previous blog, which ended with the pithy assessment, "Personal growth sucks." She was right of course, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it anyway.

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