Blinders and Hidden Biases: Recognizing Our Response to Feedback

Published: Apr 23, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Richard S. Gallagher

Human beings instinctively get defensive when they are criticized no matter how “right” this criticism is. Well, guess what? You are a human being. And if you are like most human beings, you have probably reacted to other people’s feedback in ways that didn’t exactly promote good will and harmony.

Responding effectively to another person’s feedback is much like giving it. It requires learning specific procedural skills, rather than just trying to achieve sainthood. It is a structured process that anyone can master, and that gets better with practice.

Let’s look at some of the reasons we react negatively to feedback.

We have emotional “blinders” that affect what we hear. There is an old saying that when you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In much the same way, the concerns at the top of our minds act as a filter to everything we hear from people. For example:

  • When you are a manager, someone’s feedback may seem like an affront to your authority whether it was actually meant that way or not.
  • When you are a precise, exacting technologist, an innocent suggestion may seem like an attack on your perfectionism.
  • When you are very feeling-oriented, a factual critique can easily (and mistakenly) be interpreted as a judgment of you as a person.

We each see the world differently from other people. Each of us has subtle biases that affect how we interpret other people and the messages they send us. For example:

  • Someone may be asking you for more detail and you might be writing him or her off as a “nitpicker.”
  • Feedback about how you could improve something may go against your ideas about what a subordinate should be saying to their boss.
  • Someone may wish we cared more about people, while we feel that people should “suck it up” and get back to work.

We have a strong, innate urge to protect ourselves. Whenever anyone says anything critical of us, it is instinctive for each of us to CYA (cover your analysis). This is not necessarily because we are egotists or defensive, but rather because we are all strongly programmed to feel this way as a survival instinct. As a result:

  • When someone points out a shortcoming, we immediately produce an excuse (real or imagined) for it.
  • When someone is upset with us about something, we often counter with our grievances about the other person.
  • When someone wants us to improve, we focus on the validity of their complaint rather than what we can change.

All of these instincts kick in to even higher gear the more upset or critical another person is.

Responding to Difficult Conversations: The PLAN ApproachTo help you cope with critical feedback, I have a plan for you. It involves a 4-step process that puts your response completely and painlessly on autopilot. Here are the steps:

  • Paraphrase what the other person is saying to you.
  • Listen for his or her response.
  • Acknowledge what he or she is saying.
  • Negotiate a resolution.

Each of these steps is simple, logical, and precisely the opposite of what we normally do in a difficult dialogue. At the same time, once you get used to using them, you will become amazed at how comfortable you are with anything that another person could possibly say to you. Let’s explore each of these steps in detail.

Step 1: ParaphraseWhen someone gives you feedback—particularly critical feedback—do you feel at a sudden loss for words? Or worse, primed to fight back? Then this step will take a big load off your mind because the first thing you should say in response requires almost no creativity whatsoever. In fact, you will use a simple, mechanical process that is more powerful than any clever response you could come up with: You will simply take the words that the other person handed you and repeat them back in your own words.

Paraphrasing is a process of interpreting another person’s statements rather than simply parroting them back. More important, it demonstrates to the other person that you have processed these statements internally. When you are paraphrasing someone, your responses often begin with statements like the following:

  • It sounds like . . .
  • I can see that . . .
  • So you want . . .
  • You clearly feel . . .

As we have discussed earlier, statements like these do not imply that you agree or disagree with the other person; they simply mean that you heard and understood them and that it is safe to talk about what they are saying. At the same time, it sends a powerful signal of warmth, acceptance, and understanding to the other person that opens the door to productive dialogue, whether you ultimately plan to accept or challenge their message.

When you are receiving feedback, the power of paraphrasing is best explained in terms of how you feel in the split seconds after you give someone feedback. If you are like most people, questions like these are probably swirling through your mind in the split seconds after you open up:

  • Is he going to pay attention to me?
  • Will he get upset or defensive?
  • Does he understand what I am telling him?
  • Does he care about this issue?

Paraphrasing puts each of these concerns to rest, in a way that creates an open, accepting space for dialogue. More important, it works equally well for any kind of feedback, whether it is positive, negative, agreeable, or disagreeable.

Step 2: ListenAfter you paraphrase what the other person has to say, the next step is something that is extraordinarily easy to remember, and extraordinarily hard to do: Say nothing at all.

Once we successfully get into dialogue with another person, we all share a common universal urge to blurt out things designed to defend ourselves. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us recognize this urge as one of our most basic instincts. It feels logical and natural. Unfortunately, it also works completely against us, for the following reasons:

  • It shifts the focus from their agenda to yours.
  • It doesn’t address their original concern.
  • It puts the other person on the defensive.
  • It instantly vaporizes any good will you have built up with the other person.
  • All too often, it serves as a roadblock to effective dialogue.

Compare these two approaches, and you will see what we mean:

Not so good:HIM: I don’t like your taste in clothes.
YOU: Clearly you think I should dress better. But look, there is a reason I choose to dress this way . . .
HER: I don’t like your taste in clothes.
YOU: Clearly you think I should dress better. (silence)
HER: Yes, we bankers usually wear dark suits to work and you often show up wearing pastel sport shirts and khakis.

Allow me to translate the first response for you: “I don’t care what you think and I’m not even going to ask you to explain it.” You have just insulted the other person without uttering a single negative word. Moreover, you have created an environment where it may be awkward and embarrassing for this person to give you more detail about what they are thinking. The second response, by comparison, is an open invitation to talk that leads to a valuable exchange of information.

Another key point here is that good listening is a very active, physical process. You listen with your whole body, and good listening is not just a matter of sitting blankly in silence while the other person speaks. By nodding your head, making appropriate levels of eye contact, leaning toward the other person, and using reflecting statements such as “I see,” or “Tell me more about that,” you create a very mutual and beneficial exchange without saying a word. When you do a good job of active listening, you not only make the other person feel better, but you facilitate more honesty, better information, and most important, a much lower level of heat.

Best of all, you now know exactly how to respond when you are being challenged and can replace fear with confidence. The first part of it is easy. You take the words that the other person handed you and paraphrase them. The second part is even easier: Simply sit back and listen to how the other person responds to your acknowledgment and show responsiveness to what this person is saying. By taking the “easy” way, as opposed to what comes naturally, you will suddenly start finding that even the most difficult feedback situations start turning into rational, productive dialogues.

Step 3: AcknowledgeThis is the third in a trilogy of steps that are easy but not natural when you are receiving feedback. And this step in particular will feel like sucking on a lemon if you aren’t used to doing it. But it is far and away the most powerful thing you can do when someone is trying to tell you something: Acknowledge and validate everything the other person says. This point is so important that, if I were a schoolteacher, I would have everyone write the following statement on the board 50 times:

Acknowledging someone is not the same as agreeing with the person. Further, acknowledging people isn’t a limp-wristed, subservient process of acquiescence, nor is it a process of falsely accepting blame to try to make conflict go away. Done correctly, it is a bold, confident maneuver that shines the most brightly in your most critical situations.

There is no question that it does not feel natural to acknowledge negative feedback, but there is a reason for it. While we might think acknowledgement might cause someone to become more critical, in reality the opposite is almost always true. When we frankly acknowledge people, they tend to calm down; they tend to get angrier when we defend ourselves. They push even harder for their agenda and respect you less than if you had condescended to respond to them.

In actuality, you almost always gain power and credibility when you help the other person feel understood and respected. This is ultimately why acknowledgment, even when you are hearing painful things from another person, is one of your most powerful weapons in dialogue.

Step 4: NegotiateYou may have noticed that the first three steps in this process are all about the listener. And that is important because engaging the listener first is usually the best way, and often the only way, to have a rational and productive discussion with someone after they share feedback with you. But now, it’s finally your turn.

In general, our reactions to feedback aimed at ourselves take one of two forms:
1. You can see their point.
2. You would rather get pecked to death by ducks than agree with them.

The first situation is, of course, conceptually easier to handle. Ideally, we can agree with whatever they are saying and propose a solution. For example:

You: “You’re right, I do tend to like listening to loud music at my desk. Would it be OK with you if I used headphones from here?”

The second case is a little trickier, but also one where the mechanics of what you say are more important than ever. When most people disagree with someone, the answer is usually some variant of “no,” and the way the other person reacts to this “no” is often one of the key reasons that difficult discussions escalate into arguments.

This is why I want you to always phrase your responses in terms of what you can do. It feels funny, because (a) we are so highly programmed to say “no” to people, and (b) when someone wants X, and we cannot do X, it feels really funny to respond by saying “I can do Y” instead. In situations like these, every fiber of our being wants to talk about what we can’t do, but by using “can” language, we adopt the posture of an ally and an advocate.

Words and language are critically important in situations like these. They do not absolve you from the need to negotiate in good faith with another person. They also do not guarantee, in and of themselves, that another person will agree with your position. What they will do, however, is draw much of the heat out of these discussions. If you aren’t used to phrasing your responses in “can” language, you will be surprised how hard it is for people to stay angry with you and how quickly you are both having a rational dialogue—and hopefully, reaching a consensus that benefits both parties.

Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work by Richard S. Gallagher. Copyright 2009, Richard S. Gallagher. Published by AMACOM.

About the Author(s)

Richard S. Gallagher is a popular trainer and public speaker who specializes in the mechanics of workplace culture and communication. He is the author of several books, including Great Customer Connections and What to Say to a Porcupine.