Okay. I’ll be the first to admit it: It’s easier for me to give people feedback than to receive it.
And you’re responding, “Whew! Now I don’t feel so bad!”
But constructive criticism is just that: constructive. Not personal attacks, not snarky comments, but constructive suggestions for improvement.
And improvement in ourselves and in the world is something we all are seeking.
“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”
Giving And Receiving Feedback Across Vast Differences
Most folks take constructive criticism very, very personally. Can you relate?
When you’re training for inclusion and equity, with different races, ethnicities and genders involved:
The manner in which you offer constructive criticism needs to be delivered thoughtfully to the situation, not at the person.
You can weave in your constructive criticism in professional development sessions or workshops on conflict – where the focus of the meetings is already centered on constructive criticism – and help people learn to focus on the behaviors of others, not their essence as a human being.
I note that in leadership roles, there seem to be more privileged identities the higher up you go, resulting in another layer: giving feedback to people with greater privilege and/or positional power.
For instance: if a person of color in leadership is attempting to give feedback to their whites peers or reports about their performance, they will most likely experience white fragility, resistance, and racist comments fueled by implicit racist beliefs: “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” “Get back in your place!”
The same results may happen when a woman is trying to give feedback to a man. There may be some male fragility with men reacting out of sexist thoughts: “Who the hell are you to give me feedback?” “You never should have been hired in this position from the start!”
Navigating Difficult Triggering Situations
When we’re not grounded, when we’re not clear on what our intention is, then we’re likely to give feedback – very UNconstructive criticism – out of an anger or fear response – and folks will certainly pick up on our tone and energy.
The words we speak may be on point, but if our energy sends out the “I gotcha” message or the “I don’t know if I have the right to do this,” then that becomes the messages others may hear.
So when your heart is pounding, your mind is racing and you’re feeling your muscles tighten, you must ground yourself before you speak. If not, you’ll be reacting to your hot buttons and NOT to the situation – and most likely, your criticism may not be received as constructive .
“Choose criticism wisely, it might help you improve some elements of what you do.”
― Unarine Ramaru
Always Take A Deep Breath Before Responding
When folks give me feedback, I try to listen deeply and ask for concrete examples.
If people say they are intimidated by me or don’t appreciate my style, I breathe in deeply and then ask questions:
- Can you say more?
- Can you give me an example?
- What’s the impact that I’m having on people?
- According to the people you’ve talked to, what do you hear them say -or what could I do differently?
It’s all a part of gathering more information and context. I may not agree that they’re giving me constructive criticism in a useful manner, but I’m taking the opportunity to learn from it.
As I prepare to give feedback, it helps me to write down my thoughts, like, “In our last meeting, I observed something that seemed to have an impact you didn’t intend. I’d like to explore this with you. Are you open to a conversation?” If they say, not now or I’m busy, then I might ask if they’d be available later to talk. But if they open in the moment, I usually ask a question to start, like, “Can you say more about your intentions and your thought process when you…’.
Grounding your feedback within the vision, values, strategic plan, and expected competencies of the organization, you can then your frame your comments:
“What I observed wasn’t like you, and it was different from what we’re being trained to do and so, I just wanted to take a moment to see if I can support you examining your unintended impact, and then maybe next time, you’ll help me better respond in ways that align with my values and the organization’s vision.”
Don’t Trip Into the Traps of Criticism
There are many common criticism traps to avoid falling into, including:
1. Giving feedback to only folks in marginalized identities while we don’t notice or engage the same behaviors that members of corresponding privileged group do. We tend to put people in minoritized identities under a microscope or under a bright spot light, while overlooking similar behaviors of others.
2. Never giving feedback to people in marginalized identities. We often also only give positive feedback in coaching or supervisory relationships and avoid giving any developmental feedback for fear of being called sexist, racist, classist or xenophobic. As a result, people in marginalized groups may think they’re doing great – until a lot of negative feedback is dumped on them all at once in performance reviews.
Sometimes, it helps to look at the bigger picture. In the words of Michelle Obama,
“You may not always have a comfortable life. And you will not always be able to solve all the world’s problems at once. But don’t ever underestimate the impact you can have, because history has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own.”
No one said the journey in life was easy… or even comfortable. Someone once said, “The first 100 years are the hardest!” I hope we all live a lively, healthy 100+ years in meaningful service!
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