When you step up to lead, you will inevitably one day get feedback that says you're wrong. You may get that feedback many days. Your idea stinks, we don't like how you're treating us, you're going to fail. It's your fault.
That feedback may not always be right or fair. When you step up to lead, however, negative feedback is part of the deal. But knowing there will be bumps on the journey doesn't make this kind of input easier to hear.
When you get strong negative feedback in a meeting, it feels like you're being attacked. While it's unlikely that you're in any physical danger, your nervous system acts like you are. It registers the threat and your fight-or-flight instincts begin to take over.
If you go with your instincts, you'll either shut the conversation down (the tyrant's move), attack the messenger (the bully's move), or reject and ignore the feedback (the ostrich move). That's not the leader you want to be.
So, how can you stay in very challenging conversations and also in integrity with your values? How do you stick to the enlightened leader's move?
Here are four steps you can follow to regain your equilibrium and respond with grace.
1. Create time to think.
You need to create a few moments to collect yourself. To do this, take a tip from spy movies and create a diversion. Drop your pen and as you reach to pick it up, look away and breathe.
In an online panel discussion I hosted last month, Jo Ilfeld, PhD said she coaches leaders to "Sip the soup, then blow the soup." Dr. Ilfeld is the CEO of Incite to Leadership and a professor of leadership intelligence at Sonoma State. "It's how you teach calming breath to kids," she continued, "and it works great for us adults when we're caught off guard like this."
A fast inhale followed by a focused, long exhale helps clear your head. When you exhale for even just a few seconds longer than you inhale, this begins to activate your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest, relax, digest state) and relax your sympathetic nervous system (that fight, flight, freeze state).
2. Imagine the words are falling between you.
Once you've created that space to think, Dr. Ilfeld advises clients to change their perspective. Instead of thinking that all this negative feedback is coming directly at you (aargh! Danger!), imagine instead that the words are landing between you.
When you let it fall between you, you now have this feedback out there where you can both look at it together.
3. Reply with curiosity.
Now with the issue between you, you can start asking questions. Some leaders worry that by asking for more information, they're validating the feedback -- someone making it truer by acknowledging it.
But asking for information doesn't mean you agree with what you've heard. For example, you might say, "Wow, ok. I hear that you feel xyz. I want to understand that better. Can you tell me more about where you're coming from?"
A response like this tells the other person they've been heard, so they don't need to belabor the point. It's also likely that they're dealing with strong emotions too (often a signal of something deeper going on) and your curiosity helps you both uncover that something.
4. Unpack your assumptions.
Once you've moved from that initial reaction into a conversation, Nancy Settle-Murphy said that it's critical to unpack your assumptions. Ms. Settle-Murphy is the CEO of Guidede Insights and was the cross-cultural communication expert on our panel. "Often when you dig into what those are, you realize that you may have bad information or simply misunderstand one another," she says.
In my work, I find this reminder especially helpful before replying to a challenging email. Even though the person sharing hard feedback isn't physically near, I still feel my sympathetic nervous system kick in and I begin to create all kinds of stories in my head about this threat. I need to follow these same four steps in my mind before I reply.
When it comes to negative feedback by email, you can step away from the computer and work through this calming and perspective-making process on a short walk before you craft your reply.
That leads to the final tip for these in-person conversations, too. If you find you've sipped and blown that soup and you're still not ready to reply in a way you'll be proud of later, take a walk.
But before you walk away, commit to returning.
Tell the other person "Wow, that's hard. I want to talk about this more, but I'm going to need a moment so I can get in a headspace to really hear what you're saying. Can we take a break and come back to this?" Then, set a time and return with your perspective, your curiosity, and your best leader self ready to engage.