Hearing the Hardest Feedback

Sometimes the most important feedback is the hardest for us to hear. I have learned a simple way to give difficult feedback to someone who is defensive or resisting.

How can you say such a thing!

My wife and I have been very happily married for over 25 years but have also had our challenging times. Many years ago my wife and I were meeting with a marriage counselor and my wife was giving me some feedback, which I was rejecting as totally unreasonable and unfounded. Not only was I getting feedback that I thought seemed incorrect, but I was also hurt emotionally by the feedback.  I was defensive because I felt the feedback implied that I was not a good father and a husband. I was actively resisting (“how could you say such a thing about me!”) and we were getting nowhere.

The breakthrough

The breakthrough came when the counselor asked me “Michael, is there any chance that some small, tiny, little part of this just might sometimes be true”?

This highly qualified question turned out to be a very effective frame because it allowed me to acknowledge just some of the feedback. I was able to acknowledge it without having to agree to a larger premise that I thought was wrong and an insult to my value as a human being (OK, I can get a bit dramatic). I acknowledged that while I disagreed with most of what I was hearing, in some small way this feedback just might have some validity to it.

We left it there, but after that meeting I was able to notice some of the things my (dear, saint of a) wife had been talking about. I could see how what I thought was a value judgment was actually accurate in terms of my behavior and its impact.

This allowed me to gain self-awareness, change my behavior, improve my results, and still keep my (frail, male) ego intact. In the end, I had to thank my wife for giving me input on something no one else in my life had given before. I was humbled, but on my own terms.

The 1 Percent Rule

The question (“could any part of this be true?”) provides a practical way to follow what Will Schutz, in his classic book “The Human Element”, calls “the 1 percent rule”. All feedback from someone else is distorted by their own perceptions, which may not match reality. This was one part of my resistance to the feedback from my spouse. I felt that her criticism was not an accurate reflection of my behavior, but rather her misunderstanding my actions because of her own preconceptions. According to Schutz:

“…feedback is in the eye of the beholder….but I will probably learn more if I assume that at least 1 percent of what you say is accurate. The one percent rule allows me to listen and learn more about myself than if I dismissed your feedback completely because I was clever enough to think of reasons for dismissing it. Receiving, filtering, and accepting feedback, even if it is delivered with some distortion, is part of the process of enhancing self-awareness and developing a clearer self-concept.”


Know to others, not known to me

The value of understanding difficult feedback is illustrated by a simple but powerful tool called the “JoHari” window, first developed in 1955 by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham. The JoHari window indicates there are basically four quadrants for feedback.

First, there are things that we know and that others know.  For example, I can sometimes be inpatient and interrupt other people when I am under pressure. Others know this and I know it (and trust me, I’m working on it). Then there are things that you know about yourself that others do not know, things we hope others do not see. There is also the category that no one knows: I don’t know and no one else knows. As we develop as adults, our goal is to make the “unknown” box as small as possible through self-discovery, disclosure and by accessing more that is known by others but not know to one’s self.

The category that may be the most valuable is, unfortunately, the hardest to deal with: things that others know that I don’t know myself. These can be the hardest to take in because often we don’t want to believe that these are true. Acknowledging the behavior may require questioning key beliefs we hold about ourselves that we do not want to change.

The spirit of empathy

I have spent 20 years seeking out tools, theories and practices for addressing unresolved issues with minimum effort: “heavy lifting done lightly™”. By asking yourself, or someone else “is there any little tiny part of this that just might be true some of the time?” you can help yourself or someone else gain more self-awareness about a sensitive issue with less effort.

Rather than conceit or ego, resistance to feedback might come from shame or fear.  The issue may be part of the Johori window that they thought was not known to others. The revelation that others do know it can cause a shock.

Good feedback is an act of kindness and should be given with empathy and caring.   Use this tool to ensure your goal is to assist someone and not dump on them. Do not expect an immediate conversion, but over time, you may see the behavior change, and they may even thank you for it someday.

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