It is important to recognise that receiving feedback is an inherently stressful experience. While logically and professionally we know that feedback is essential to our development it can still activate an emotional response because we might still feel misjudged, ill-used or threatened by it.
Over millions of years humans have developed a “threat response,” a collection of physiological, emotional, and cognitive events that occur when we perceive a conflict. We typically refer to this set of reactions as a fight, flight, or freeze response. This response is usually associated with literal threat to our physical wellbeing but can also be caused by social threats too.
Feedback can trigger a social threat in every one of us. For example, if the person giving the feedback is of higher status than us, or if we experience uncertainty because we feel less autonomy or freedom of choice, when we feel less connected to those around us and when we believe that something is unfair.
One of life’s great challenges is successfully regulating our emotions so how can we achieve this when receiving feedback? A number of psychologists such as James J. Gross, from Stanford University in California, have shed light on how best to achieve this using the process of ‘reappraisal’, which is sometimes referred to as ‘reframing’. Essentially the technique is about changing the way a situation is construed so as to decrease its emotional impact.
For example, when receiving feedback it is helpful to remind yourself of the following:
- Your perception that the feedback is threatening is a natural human response. However, the feeling of being threatened doesn’t automatically imply that you are facing a literal threat.
- The person providing you with feedback isn’t necessarily assuming a position of higher status or reinforcing their status over you. In most cases their intentions are simply to help you improve, even if they are not doing very well.
- If you feel the feedback is too general or not correct, ask the giver questions to help you understand the feedback more clearly. For example in response to ‘your presentation wasn’t very convincing’, ask questions such as:
- What was it I did that gave you the impression that I wasn’t convincing?
- What should I have done differently?
Getting specific factual insights will help you to understand what you need to change and reduce the feeling of social threat.
- If you feel the feedback is unfair, keep in mind that you may have misunderstood the feedback giver’s motives. Again ask the feedback giver questions about what they see the purpose of the feedback is and in what way they see it helping you to improve.
- Someone who is good at giving feedback should always ask you first if you wish to receive it. However, even if this doesn’t happen and you feel obligated to participate in the conversation, remember you are making the choice to respond to that pressure, and you have an option to receive the feedback at another more convenient time.
Feedback is vital if we are to push ourselves outside our comfort zones, to learn, develop and improve our performance. However, to truly gain the most from any feedback it is important to go into these conversations with a clear understanding of how we respond to stress, a plan for managing our stress levels, and an awareness of when we become too stressed to absorb feedback and learn from it.
It is inevitable that at some point at work we will receive some poorly delivered feedback that renders a challenging experience even more stressful. To deal with these situations effectively it is best to fully learn and practice the technique of reappraisal or reframing to change the way you think about the feedback so as to decrease its emotional impact.
If you want to learn more and improve these skills consider our 1 day In House Giving and Receiving Feedback Course for up to 10 delegates.