Staying Open to Honest Feedback — The Good and the Bad

Last month, I wrote about vulnerability and the opportunity to “unmask” ourselves toward our best self.  A close cousin of vulnerability is candor, the ability to be honest with ourselves and with others. Most of us are somewhat blind to the best and the worst in each of us.  It shouldn’t be surprising.  After all, we don’t ever really experience ourselves.  Other people experience us.  So if want to gauge how we are experienced, we need to develop self-awareness. This means actively observing ourselves as well as getting feedback on how others perceive us.  To do this, we need to stay open to receiving information. No doubt, this is easier said than done.  Thus, the reason many view “feedback”, in the workplace and in life, as challenging.  It’s just so uncomfortable.

Interestingly, based on my coaching experience, it’s not just the negative feedback that people eschew.  Individuals are sometimes uncomfortable with getting positive feedback.  The kind of positive feedback that is most unnerving is not the “ job well done” kind of feedback.  It’s the feedback about someone’s core strength, when I speak to the deepest passion and capability of a person.  It seems that so many of us are so focused on ways to improve that we forget the inherent gifts that allow us to give to the world.   As Nelson Mandela has said, “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” I invite you to sit with this quote for a second or two.  It’s true, isn’t it?  Why is it so hard for us to be honest with ourselves about the very gifts we are meant to bestow to the world?  Why do we shun it?

Expectedly, we are ever more guarded to receive negative feedback.  It’s such a threat. It so threatening that organizations have coined a phrase “opportunities for development” to cover for negative feedback in the workplace.  So how traumatic can negative feedback be?  Take myself as an example. I’ve found that when I’m particularly wound up and down on myself, a negative feedback that was given to me a decade ago will pop up in my mind.  If you went into my mind, you’d think I was in a horror movie, running away for my life, on the verge of getting killed.  So of course, to protect myself, I just attack that criticism as hard as I can.  If you think I’m crazy and you don’t do it, you’re deluding yourself.  We all do this…we do.  This deep fear is why we loathe getting feedback and avoid giving feedback.  Two sides of the same coin.

But there’s a way out of this. Being our best self is about embracing our gifts and staying open to criticism.  Criticism is not an absolute judgment with 100% accuracy.  It’s just someone else’s opinion.  So, we need to discriminate the value of that opinion.  All criticism is not worthy of your attention. Some are extremely helpful.  Others should be chucked.  But if we are to soar in this world, we must be willing to see with open and honest eyes.  Criticism is not the annihilation of our worthiness.  But it can be if we allow it to be.  At its best, criticism is a knock at the door to help us see that we are off track from our best.  It can serve as a supportive nudge to not hang on to something and choose to stay open to change.

I know for myself, it’s taken courage to stay open.  As a recovering perfectionist, getting any feedback less than 100% was tantamount to my execution and so I ran away from it for dear life.  But a few great bosses along the way helped me understand why feedback can be so helpful.  And my first employer, P&G, had such a robust performance management system and feedback coaching that I knew, early on, that organizations are capable of teaching individuals how to provide and receive feedback toward a shared outcome. And personally, my husband has always given feedback with a soft glove, not the fist, and it was usually right on target – even though I had to scream and flail for a bit. So, I’ve been lucky. Yet, most of all, it was a combination of my competitive nature and eventually, love for myself, that allowed me to sit and receive feedback.  In years past, after receiving negative feedback, I would go home and beat myself to a pulp. But when I emerged from my own beating, I usually recognized the upside of tuning in, and adjusted.  Today, I have enough awareness to see my own fist coming at me and have learned, in most instances, to let the momentum of my old fist beating sail on by.  So feedback is much less scary and occasionally, I even welcome it. I know that I am more open to seeing reality than ever before.  I’m also better at recognizing the wheat from the chaff, when it comes to the value of someone’s feedback.

In my own little world, I know Mr. Mandela is right.  We each have immense light.  Yet the way to our light requires travel through the darkness, with honesty, self-candor and limitless love.  What feels like life-threatening darkness is actually the way forward to living in our own greatness.  Journey on.