6 Steps To Cope With A Feedback Curveball

In my job, there’s a lot of feedback involved. Sometimes I’m receiving it, usually after a workshop or in a review meeting. Sometimes I’m giving it, either making an observation of something my client has said or done, or conveying others’ views in a 360˚ feedback report.

I’ll say it now…I’m a big fan of feedback, but I was given pause to question that the day I was thrown a feedback curveball.

Why was it a curveball?

Because, unlike in the usual forums, where everyone’s fully aware that feedback is on the cards, this bit of unsolicited insight came completely out of the blue.

Here’s what happened…

I’d sat down with a client to go through the results of a feedback survey I’d conducted about him as part of our work together. He’d provided the list of people for me to get feedback from and, as it turned out, one of the respondents was a journalist I’d worked with in my previous role running a press office.

“Before you give me my feedback,” he said, “I have some for you.”

He then proceeded to read me an email the journalist had sent him, in which they reminisced about knowing me…and not in a positive way. Phrases like ‘she was the rudest PR person in the Western Hemisphere’ and ‘every journalist I know has in some way been offended by her’ were bandied about, accompanied by a description of a particular incident where the journalist had themself been offended.

Now, bearing in mind it had been 12 years since the incident took place and I hadn’t been in media relations for over eight years, I was somewhat taken aback.

At first, I thought it was a mistake; I couldn’t correlate what was being said about me with my own view of myself. Once I knew it was definitely me they were referring to, my stomach churned, my palms got sweaty and I felt like disappearing into a hole in the ground.

I didn’t let my client know that though. Instead I made some light-hearted remark, noted I was a different person from who I was back then and moved on with the session. (Not easy to do when your mind’s going, “WHAT THE HECK JUST HAPPENED!?!”)

At the end of our meeting, I casually asked if I could have the email, knowing that having the exact wording would be useful when I tried to process the curveball that had been forcefully lobbed at my head.

It took about three days for that to happen. Even after the initial shock subsided and my emotional reaction was countered by my rational mind, the comments niggled at the back of my head. However, there was one thing I knew for sure:

I had to put this to bed or it would chip away at my confidence.

Here’s what I did…

Step 1. Download the information

At the first opportunity, I rang a friend – someone I knew was on my side, so wouldn’t judge me, but who would also tell me some harsh truths if necessary. (This is much better than phoning a close relation or your other half as they’re more likely to let their emotions cloud their judgement.) By relating the content of the email to her, I began to properly download it, ready to proceed to the next step.

Step 2. Scrutinise it

With the help of my friend, we picked apart what had actually been said (because your mind can add things that aren’t there if you’re not careful). She then stress-tested various points to shift my perspective and rationalise my thoughts.

For example, she pointed out that if I had offended every journalist, I wouldn’t have been able to do my job and, during my 15 years in PR would, at some point, have had the issue pointed out to me.

Step 3. Balance it

Even with my friend’s scrutiny, I wanted to ensure I took on board the parts of the feedback that were valid (so I could avoid the same mistakes), but do that in a balanced way.

First, I came up with examples that backed up how the journalist saw me – that I offended people and was rude. I have to admit, I have a track record of inadvertently putting my foot in my mouth that makes me cringe even now. (Like the time I congratulated a woman for being pregnant when she wasn’t.)

To balance that, I came up with examples of people I definitely hadn’t offended and found there were many more. I thought about the journalists who had written me kind notes when I announced I was leaving the industry and those who stayed in touch for a long time after. There were the ones who would change their diaries just to fit in a lunch with me and even a couple I’d worked with in my new role as a personal brand specialist.

On balance, the second list was a lot longer than the first.

Step 4. Check the relevance

As well as looking at the historic situation (as I said, the feedback related to a decade earlier) I also looked at the present situation in order to check the feedback’s relevance:

  • How much does this matter now? I’m not dealing with journalists any more, so even if I had offended them, it isn’t affecting my ability to do my job.
  • Am I still the same? As I’d said to my client, I’ve changed a lot; I’m older and wiser, my EQ has increased and, as a result, I put my foot in my mouth a lot less often.
  • Could this happen now? Yes – my sense of humour is still the same and can lead me to engage my mouth before my brain. But as my consciousness has increased, the odds have lessened.

Step 5. Set a wallowing limit

I’ll admit…when that initial curveball was thrown, I was knocked for six. (Have I just confused my baseball and cricket analogies?)

Alongside feeling sorry for myself (we all know we’re flawed but it’s still not fun to have those flaws set out in black and white) I also felt embarrassed, because it was true – I had been rude to this person. The fact it was unintentional didn’t change that.

But rather than trying to immediately buck myself up, I did something I often do when I take a trip to the Land of Self-Pity: I let myself wallow, but (and it’s a big but) I set myself a time limit.

It’s a tactic that’s stood me in good stead over the years. I allow my brain to slosh around in a negative mud-bath, with the specific understanding that, at a set time (24-hours works best for me), I have to stop and either do something to change the situation or accept it and move on. The latter is what I refer to as my ‘F*ck It Point’ and it’s saved my sanity on more than one occasion.

Step 6. Take action (if necessary)

Even though I knew the journalist had never intended their comments to be passed on to me, I was glad of the chance to address them.

After weighing up whether to let sleeping dogs lie or take action, I sent them an email with a heartfelt apology for the offence I’d caused. Why? I figured if I’d known I’d caused offence at the time, I’d have apologised immediately, so surely it was just as valid now.

(It’s worth noting that sometimes doing nothing is the way to go – every case will be different.)

I got a reply saying, in essence, it was all water under the bridge, which further helped to lob that curveball into the long grass.

So there you have it – my six steps for coping with a feedback curveball. I hope you don’t have one aimed at your head any time soon, but if you do, you’ll know what to do.

How do you deal with feedback curveballs? Is there another step you’d add in to cope? I’d love it if you’d add a comment in the box below or even share this article with friends and colleagues. Thanks!

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