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Taking Negative Feedback

In a recent interview for a university program, I was asked, "Tell me about a time when you got some negative feedback, and what you did with it", or words to that effect - basically, demonstrate that you can turn negative feedback into something constructive.

Often, when we receive negative feedback, it feels very personal.

When the feedback comes from a colleague, even well-intentioned and from someone with vastly more experience, we can be taken aback. For example, after doing a job for 18 months, a colleague sent me an email to say I'd been doing something wrong. Out of the blue, this person with whom I didn't even work closely, pulled me up. They could have told my supervisor or other colleagues behind my back (much worse scenarios), or they could have picked up the phone to tell me.

The way that someone delivers the feedback can take us off-guard, and the way we're experiencing life at that time can influence how we take the feedback. I looked at that email, and thought "how random", then looked at the procedure manual. They were right; I had been doing something wrong. How to thank them? Well, with some humility! I emailed my thanks, but a phone call would have been just as appropriate. But I did my best to change what I was doing.

Now, I could have been pretty offended by that colleague's email. But, what if the feedback came from my supervisor? It might have become a black mark against my name, and that could come back to haunt me one day. Regular performance reviews might be great for keeping people on track and providing opportunities for promotion, but when the organisation is looking to downsize, it's the staff who are not doing so well who will be let go of first.

If the performance review happens regularly, and you have a great working relationship with your boss, you might take the negative feedback in a healthy way. Saying sorry, where appropriate, doesn't go astray. Listening to how things should be done, making suggestions to improve procedures, helping to make the workplace run more smoothly; these are all useful.

But, what if the negative feedback is more personal?

Well, if someone who loves you gives the feedback, they are most likely focusing on a particular behaviour. They're not saying, "I don't love you", they're saying, "This behaviour makes me feel less important to you". And if you love them, you don't want them to feel that way.

So, here's another example. I'm the youngest of a large family. When I was little, my mother used to say, "Children should be seen and not heard", and I internalised and generalised that advice. I was the kid. There are some siblings who developed the ability to talk and take only quick breaths in between; others who would hang back and wait to ask a question; then, there are those who have always had voices loud and commanding enough to interject. In case you couldn't tell, I'm in the "hanging back" category.

Because I was the kid of the family, it didn't matter if I had something to say, or not. It would not be of interest to my teenage siblings. Older siblings often have a tendency to see the youngest as "the baby of the family", even when that baby is 45. What they might not realise is, that baby has been learning from them their entire life.

Hanging back, watching, listening, learning.

When I was the baby, or toddler, the only way I could get attention, was to cry. Sisters would be screaming about wearing each other's clothes without permission, brothers would be playing Kung Fu with hard hurtful thumps, and I would be lost in the maelstrom. They'd all get smacks for bad behaviour, and complain to our parents that they never smacked me. How could I be naughty? I was little, I was unheard and unnoticed. I was glad to have Mum all to myself during Mass, but I had to be quiet there too. Hanging back quietly, still.

As much as I developed my own sense of social justice over the years, I never developed an ability to stand up and be heard for my own sake. My siblings, one by one, eventually left home, so it was just my parents and me. I left home too, but (like some of the others) came back for a spell now and then.

I loved living with Mum and Dad. It was easy, sharing all the chores, having someone to go swimming at the ocean baths with or to go shopping with. If anyone has been my soulmate, my parents have.

But, even when Mum died and her funeral was being organised, I was shut out of the arrangements. I didn't have a say; I was shut down. Eventually, I went away and found some readings that Mum would have liked, and submitted them for approval. At least, that's how it felt. Looking for approval.

Again, later, when Dad was dying, he and I agreed that I'd move in and care for him. I resented one sibling after another coming to tell him what he "had" to do. It was as though he was being treated like a small child as much as me, and frankly, we were both smart independent people who could manage perfectly well without all this extra attention.

At one point, one of my brothers sat me down, and said he owed me an apology. He said he was sorry, because he always used to say, "Shut up Mary-Claire, what would you know, you're just a kid", and he had realised that I didn't deserve to be treated that way. I had grown up.

I was surprised by this apology, but glad. I wracked my brain trying to remember him saying those words, but it was so long ago now that it was almost forgotten. But I knew the feeling. The feeling, of being unnoticed and unheard, was still with me, and was to remain for some time yet.

The fact is, we all get into habits, especially with family and friends. Some of us take the lead, some herd everyone into get-togethers, some play supporting roles. We take all this for granted. When the quiet ones speak up, they seem louder than everyone else. That's because they have to be, to be heard. It's likely that they've been giving that negative feedback for years and nothing ever changes, and when they speak up that little bit louder, it is because they just feel so ignored.

So, let's get back to that idea of receiving negative feedback. There might already be a lot of emotion behind it. The person providing it, might spend hours or days, maybe even longer, trying to prepare how to deliver it. Or, it might be that moment when they suddenly become the "camel" that feels their back breaking under the last straw, and they snap without warning. I've delivered negative feedback using both methods; I bet I'm not alone.

I suppose, when deliberating over the behaviour that leads to the feedback, and the feedback itself, we need to take time to consider the feelings involved for all parties. And we need to bring that consideration into what we decide to do, going forward. Either way, allowing all parties to be heard (and to feel heard), is a really good start. And it's good to remember, too, that it's not the person under attack; it's the behaviour that makes someone feel less important - and we don't want that!


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