Negative feedback can be difficult to respond to, particularly when you feel that it’s unfair. A friend of mine was recently stung when his supervisor handed him a letter at 4:20 pm Friday afternoon. The letter outlined a series of complaints that my friend had been unaware of prior to receiving the letter – he didn’t even remember some of the things that were mentioned. He asked if he could discuss the letter, but the supervisor responded with, “No, we’ll talk about it on Monday.” When he spoke with me, he wondered what he should do saying, “It just felt so unfair.”
From my point of view, this approach does feel unfair – and ineffective. In this two-part blog series, I’ll start by exploring some ideas for responding to what seems like unfair feedback from a supervisor, and in part two I’ll talk about how I think a supervisor can give feedback more effectively.
Here are four steps for responding to unfair feedback:
1. Take Some Time to Calm Down
In order to prepare for a conversation with someone who has more power within an organization, you must first start by managing your emotions and examining your thoughts.
When you acknowledge your own feelings, it can take some of the power out of the often-overwhelming emotions of fear, uncertainty, and anger that normally result from being treated in a way that you feel is unfair.
After taking some time to process your emotions, ask yourself the following questions:
- How important is it to have a conversation about the feedback? Why?
- What do you hope to accomplish by talking about it? What if you ignore it?
- Imagine your supervisor is operating with good intentions. What might those be?
- What are some positive changes your supervisor might want to see come from the feedback?
- If there was an element of truth in this feedback, what would it mean for you?
- Is there anything you can acknowledge or take responsibility for?
- What might be missing in your supervisor’s view of things that might change their story?
- What would you like to be different going forward?
These questions will help you master your emotions and prepare for a possible conversation with your supervisor.
2. Begin a Mutual Conversation
Once you have asked yourself these questions, invite your supervisor to have a conversation with you. You’ll want to provide them with a compelling and positive reason to have the conversation. Your answers to the questions, “What are some positive changes your supervisor might want to see come from the feedback?” and “What do you hope to accomplish by talking about it?” will help you think this through. The point is to come up with a compelling and mutual purpose for the conversation.
In the case of my friend, he may want to say something like this:
“I want to thank you for taking the time to provide me with some feedback. It’s clear that you’ve not always been happy with what I’m doing. Would it be possible to sit down and talk about it some more because I want to make sure I’m doing my work in such a way that it reflects well on you, me, and the organization.”
Taking an honest look at negative feedback usually provides you with opportunities for growth – even if the way it was delivered felt unfair.
3. Be the First to Listen
Listening is one of the most powerful tools for helping a conversation like this go well. When someone is truly listened to, it is disarming for them, and it prepares them to listen to you. Consider beginning the conversation by asking your supervisor to describe their hopes for the working relationship or for your work. Then listen. Rather than preparing to argue, tell them what you hear them saying and ask if there is more. If there isn’t, thank them for sharing.
Once your supervisor feels heard, ask them if you can add to what they have said and share some of your perspectives. Describe your own positive intentions and your disappointment that these have not come through. Let them know that receiving the feedback has been hard and that you have been considering it seriously.
If possible, acknowledge where you have found elements of truth in what’s been said. For instance, my friend could say something like this: “While I didn’t realize that the way I ended conversations felt harsh, I can see that I am coming across that way to you and I’d like to change that.”
If some key things are missing from your supervisor’s story, ask if you can add some details or perspective – do this in the spirit of being helpful, not defensive.
4. Discuss a Positive Vision for the Future
Your conversation should finish with a plan for going forward – talk with your supervisor about what you can do differently based on their feedback. If you are unsure about what to do, say so, and ask them to work with you to figure that out.
Talking with my friend, one of the things that was hardest was hearing about events in the letter that he did not specifically remember. He may want to ask the supervisor how they can get to the place where feedback is given more immediately.
Conclude by thanking your supervisor for taking the time to have the conversation with you. Let them know you are open to further conversations if and when they are needed.
Whenever we receive feedback, our instincts for self-preservation kick in. This often leads to feeling defensive, which shuts down our ability to find positive elements in the feedback. In order to work with critique or what we perceive as unfair feedback, we have to start by becoming calm and examining our thoughts. This helps us begin a mutual conversation with the person who gave the feedback – one that they are more likely to engage with in a positive way.
When we prepare to listen first, this opens the door to being heard by our supervisor. Concluding with a focus on a positive future helps set the stage for better conversations moving forward.
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