I have never met anyone who likes hearing that they did something wrong, made a mistake, or unintentionally did something hurtful. It feels awful, and most of us would rather crawl into a hole and disappear than have to face up to someone telling us we made a mistake. One of the best ways to learn how to give feedback in a manner that allows the recipient of your feedback to learn and change is to think about how you yourself receive feedback.
When someone gives you feedback, how do you feel?
Difficult feedback can make us feel defensive or threatened. Perhaps someone tells you that you’ve caused harm to someone you work with or care about. When we are told something that’s hard to hear, most people tend to react in two different ways.
We Stay in Our Comfort Zone
In the image below, the circle in the centre is our Comfort Zone (from the Learning Zone model developed by Tom Senninger, as described here). That’s where we stay when we don’t want to think too hard, where we refuse to be challenged, where we think we understand the world.
The Comfort Zone is where we retreat to when told we have caused harm or made a mistake. While in the Comfort Zone, we tend to minimize, dismiss, and refuse to listen. We may seek out people who support our position. When we’re in our Comfort Zone, we tell ourselves things like, “I am a good person,” and, “Everything is alright.”
People whose words and actions haven’t been challenged much by others may have a hard time leaving their Comfort Zone. However, we all get stuck in our Comfort Zone sometimes. How will you know if you’re in the Comfort Zone when receiving feedback? Think of a time when someone asked you to change a behaviour and you brushed off their concern. Perhaps you replied, “Don’t take things so seriously, it’s just a joke” or the classic, “You’re too sensitive.”
In these situations, you may find yourself unwilling to step out of your Comfort Zone to understand that, while you might not think something is a big deal, it might be deadly important to someone else.
To learn from feedback, you need to remember it. However, moments spent in the Comfort Zone can be hard to remember because they were comfortable and therefore not that memorable.
When someone is stuck in their Comfort Zone, they may need a push to get out of it. Being confronted by the intensity of someone’s anger or hurt, or realizing there might be consequences for not taking things seriously are sometimes enough to get you unstuck.
However, you can also choose to step out of your Comfort Zone by being committed to listening deeply when people tell you they are upset with you. You can also build your capacity to step out of your comfort zone by – big surprise – doing things that aren’t part of your normal routine or way of looking at things. You can read about experiences that are different from yours. You can practice looking at a situation from different points of view. And, you can remember to be humble about the limits of your own experience.
We Go to the Danger Zone
Can you think of a time when you got scared or angry in reaction to being accused of something? Perhaps you had to fight the impulse to escape. Maybe you wanted to lash out against the person who raised the complaint. Or maybe you felt so guilty that you were overwhelmed with the feeling of being a bad person.
Feelings like these are common reactions to learning you have caused harm. They are signs that you’re in the Danger Zone.
Why do some people go to the Danger Zone when receiving feedback? In this zone, being present with the person we have harmed feels much too risky. Difficult feedback can be perceived as a threat. As a result, your body reacts as if your life is at risk, and when people are threatened, they go into “fight or flight” mode. You may shut down or run away, or you may come out fighting. Your heart speeds up and your rational brain shuts down. You lose your ability to empathize, think strategically, or understand that there are shades of gray. All you hear is, “This person thinks I’m a monster. I have to defend myself!”
We all have different ways to help ourselves leave the Danger Zone. Figuring out what is helpful for you is so important. When you feel overwhelmed by anger, fear, guilt, or another difficult emotion, what helps you personally to come back to a calmer, more grounded state of mind?
For me, it took a long time to even notice when I was in the Danger Zone. Over time, what has helped me most is a regular meditation practice. Exercise, asking for a break, taking some deep breaths before returning to the conversation, and finding a support person to talk it out with, can all help. But like I said, it’s different for everyone.
Helping People to Stay in the Learning Zone
Now, think about what it’s like for others when you are giving feedback. How does your feedback make the other person feel?
When giving constructive feedback, what you want is to support people to stay in their Learning Zone rather than escaping to the Comfort Zone or sliding into the Danger Zone. The Learning Zone is where growth happens. It’s where people integrate new ideas and learn new behaviours. Unlike the Comfort Zone, the Learning Zone is not comfortable; in fact, it may be extremely unpleasant. However, there is enough of a sense of safety in the Learning Zone to be able to hear, absorb, and understand. In other words, to stay in the Learning Zone, we need to be challenged, while at the same time, feeling fundamentally safe. Is there a way to give constructive feedback that challenges someone to see things a different way, without putting their sense of emotional safety on the line? Constructive feedback, rather than punitive or judging feedback, helps people to be able to stay grounded and present.
For more about how to give constructive feedback, read my blog post, Nine Tips for Giving Good Feedback in the Workplace