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How to Deal with Emotional Reactions to Feedback

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Alan O'Rourke // cc by 2.0 //

What Factors Enhance or Disrupt our Acceptance of Feedback?

“I think it is very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.” - Elon Musk

We would like to believe that everybody values receiving feedback about their skills as a leader. 

But receiving feedback, no matter where or how it is delivered, is an emotional process that can be loaded with embarrassment, fear, anger, defensiveness, and shame. Often these emotions are short lived, but if the emotions linger, it can interfere with productivity, mood, and communication.

Coaches can support a leader and defuse a difficult feedback session by understanding why people fear and react to feedback. You are not only dealing with what is current in the leader’s world, but his or her history, how he or she is “wired,” and his or her beliefs about what feedback means. Acceptance of or sensitivity to feedback often has roots in the biological and social history of that leader. Here are some factors that can enhance or disrupt acceptance of feedback:

  • A general state of contentment, happiness, and resilience appears to increase our tolerance for even the toughest feedback.
  • The process of receiving feedback can trigger a normal grieving process of shock, denial, and acceptance.
  • Leaders who have a longer emotional recovery time or wider swings in mood may initially be more upset.
  • Some leaders may be sensitive to feedback because they see it as criticism and they may have a history of being more guarded.
  • Feedback can trigger a biological fear response of “flight or fight” in some leaders.
  • Beliefs play a major role in acceptance of feedback: a leader who understands that feedback is not personal will react differently than another who believes that feedback reflects a greater judgment of who he or she is as a person.

The Leadership Practices Inventory is a tool that provides feedback to leaders on how frequently they demonstrate 30 leadership behaviors, adding structure and measurement to a leadership development process. Leaders receive their LPI report within the context of a Leadership Challenge workshop, or sometimes more privately while working with a coach.

As a facilitator or coach, what do you do if you find yourself faced with a leader who starts to cry, gets angry, shuts down, or begins to get defensive when faced with his or her results?

Any of these reactions can be unnerving for even the most seasoned coach. Continuing to talk about the content of the LPI will not be helpful; it’s important for the coach to respond to the emotion before proceeding.

First and foremost, remember that another part of our brain takes over when we we’re in a high emotional state. We are less able to process information accurately, communicate clearly, or be future oriented. So how could a consultant or coach support and respond to common emotions when leaders receive feedback?

Oh no, there’s tears

It is ok to push the pause button when somebody is distraught. Coaches need to be comfortable with allowing the other person to regain control at their speed. Soothing comments like “You are really upset right now” and “Getting feedback can be confusing and unsettling” let the leader know you are willing to be there with him or her. It’s perfectly ok to say that the leader has all the time he or she needs. Be sure not to assume that you know why the person is crying, but wait and offer him or her time to take care of him or herself. Stay still yourself. Your empathy and humanness will be appreciated.

Dealing with defensiveness, blame, and deflection

Defensiveness comes from a deeper level and can often be about not feeling safe. If you have a leader who is rejecting perceived negative feedback by talking about why the feedback is not valid, reflect on what you are seeing and hearing. “Tom, you have some strong emotions now and you’re not sure that what others have reported is valid or helpful to you. Is that what you are saying? . . . It may not be. Let’s talk a little more about that.”

By not confronting or calling out the defensiveness, you have indicated that you are willing to hear his perspective. It gives you greater leverage to go back with him to see if there is any feedback that he can take in. Do not push any message or agenda when the leader is defensive. Let the situation defuse with continued acknowledgment. In most cases you will notice an opening to provide a refocus.

Withdrawal

It’s common for leaders to get quiet as they look more deeply at their feedback. Again, make it safe by saying “I notice you have gotten a little quiet. I wonder what you might be feeling or thinking. Would you be willing to share your thoughts?” Don’t try to fill the silence with your own talk. If you can sit with them in their silence, they may feel more comfortable talking with they are ready.

Anger and intensity

This can be one of the most challenging situations for a coach and it is important that coaches not have their own “fight and flight” response. The anger is not directed at you. Use a neutral and calm tone to acknowledge and validate what the leader is saying. Remember that anger is a secondary emotion and underneath the anger is often fear, frustration, and helplessness. After acknowledging what the leader is saying, state the fact that the conversation cannot continue in this manner. Ask “what can you do to help you be in a better place to continue?”

It is helpful for coaches to have some supportive and inquiring phrases in the aftermath of a strong emotional reaction from a leader. Ask “What feedback were you hoping to get?” or “What feedback made the most sense to you?”

Coaches have an opportunity to help a leader give his or her meaning to his or her LPI report. Conversations about the meaning of feedback to the leader are a goldmine. After responding to the emotional reaction, coaches can help leaders “right size” the feedback, bringing the power of it down to help the leader gain a new perspective.

Encouraging leaders to take the next steps in identifying areas of opportunity and improvement is more effective if they can see feedback as less of a personal attack and more about learning how others are affected by and perceive their actions, behavior, and decisions. They are likely to be more open to this shift to a growth mindset when they feel their emotions have been acknowledged and understood.

Supporting leaders when they are emotional can be challenging and trigger emotional reactions for the coach as well. That is why coaches need to take their own medicine and practice responding to the emotions of others. Try out role playing with a colleague to act out some of the scenarios. Give it your best shot and get feedback about how it felt from the other side.

Coaches who respond appropriately to leaders’ emotions can maximize the effectiveness of the feedback process and show leaders the value in learning from others.


Download an Overview of The Leadership Practices Inventory 360 LPI

Holly Seaton, Ph.D.

Holly Seaton, Ph.D. is a consultant for FlashPoint. Holly is an executive coach who appreciates the privilege of helping organizations and individuals build their leadership capacity by moving from intent to action.

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