Image Source: Man in the Maze

I’ve recently received some tough feedback about how some of my actions and words unintentionally negatively impacted a personal relationship. The message was hard to hear, but it was definitely time to hear it. Upon reflection, I realized that by working for myself for the past 18 years without regular performance feedback from bosses/colleagues – metaphorically – my “branches” had grown a bit wild and gnarly, and were overdue for a pruning.

The feedback I received cut deep, but I wanted to better understand it.  I knew the “trimming” would make me better and stronger in the future. As I took time to survey the cut places where the sap oozed, and picked the trimmings off the ground, I found myself feeling renewed empathy, compassion, and respect for my executive coaching clients.

The Challenge of Difficult Feedback

During the “Assessment Phase” of almost every coaching engagement, I conduct seven to twelve 360-degree feedback colleague interviews, and write a summary report filled with quotes about my clients’ strengths (some just right, underused, and overused) and “development opportunities.” The information clients receive is very specific to them, their companies, and industries. I deliver this feedback as kindly, accurately, and clearly as possible, and provide details of “what success looks like.” Then, I help clients process and make sense out of the data. One client exclaimed after receiving a chocked full report – “There’s gold in them thar pages!” But finding gold doesn’t automatically make us rich. Clients must commit to the hard work of mining it, figuring out it’s worth, and offering it to someone to receive its full value. 

Taking in constructive feedback as intended, facing it and ourselves, and doing something about one’s shortcomings is usually challenging, sometimes painful, and often long-term work. It is disorienting, and requires we admit we’re not perfect and have more growing to do. And at the same time, when our behaviors and their impact are illuminated, we are closer than ever to the truth and potential of who we are. Without this moment of clarity and humility, we are at risk of derailing, damaging relationships, missing development opportunities, and not truly realizing our own (and others’) greatness.

The Choice for Growth

My personal experience this year also reminded me of the “crossroads” choice my clients (and we all) must make after receiving difficult feedback. Do we righteously defend ourselves? Harshly blame ourselves/others?  Or do we move forward and try to understand ourselves/others, learn the lessons, and select a growth path?  This choice brings to mind my favorite poem, “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost. “Two roads diverge in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth…” 

For all of us, self-awareness, learning, and growing are indeed a choice. And making a choice to really commit to achieving significant, sustained attitudinal and behavioral change is not for the faint of heart. It means we won’t keep doing things the way we have been doing them. Instead, we must pick a different path that will be uncharted and can feel scary. And success is not guaranteed. But for my clients and myself, I see over and over again that growth is the most courageous and promising choice for improved relationships with self and others, and positive outcomes for all.

Here are some tips to help you make the “choice for growth” after difficult feedback:

  1. Pause & Reflect – Take time to further process the positive and constructive feedback. Tough feedback can sting and create a fight or flight reaction. Let time pass, and then reread/rethink the feedback (repeatedly if necessary) until you can take in the lessons without overly defending or blaming yourself and/or others. Listen to what people are saying, stay curious, and admit to yourself what rings true. Take notes about your realizations and what you might want to do differently.
  2. Gain Further Insight– Get even more curious about yourself, others, and your environment.
    • What situations, people, behaviors, and emotions trigger you? What truths and values are being violated when you are triggered?
    • What systemic issues cause or exacerbate the above? 
    • How do you feel and act when you’re triggered?
    • What is/has been the impact of being triggered on you and others? What damage has been done?
  3. Focus & Identify Goals – Decide upon root cause(s) and a couple behaviors to learn/change. Write down what you’ll do differently, and how you will positively impact yourself and others as result. Define what success will look like for you and others. Make a development plan or “map” to refer to along the way.
  4. Commit to Self & Others – Identify the benefits to yourself and others if you grow in the ways you envision. Explore the costs of not doing so. Make a commitment to develop and stay the course – even when it gets tough, and you make mistakes along the way. 
  5. Get Support – Ask for assistance and feedback before starting your growth journey. Select a variety of supporters – people like you who have successfully overcome the same/similar challenges, and people different from you who naturally take an alternative approach. Talk with your “peeps” about the type and frequency of feedback you want/need from them while on your growth path.
  6. Start & Keep Developing – Begin your development process. Put one foot in front of the other, and don’t turn back. Rest when you need to, then keep moving forward. Refer to your development plan/map often. If you fall in a hole, look around, understand the hole and why you fell in it. Ask for help and/or pull yourself out, brush yourself off, and keep walking. Try to avoid the hole next time, and continue moving forward.

I am honored to witness, encourage, and support my executive coaching clients as they work through the above steps and make the choice to accept tough feedback, own it, create and commit to a development plan, and do the work to become better leaders and people. I am also inspired and motivated by them to take the “growth path” myself. So…in 2023, as I pay attention to the feedback the universe has given me – I look forward to the choice in front of me. “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Quotes from “The Road Not Taken” from “Sweet and Bitter Bark – Selected Poems by Robert Frost,” The Nature Company, Berkeley, CA, 1992