Coping with (Dare I say) Toxic feedback

photo-1455380579765-810023662ea2I have been making my living as a professional speaker, consultant, author and coach over the past dozen years.   Dare I reveal what a tough profession this can be – at the very least on one’s self esteem?!

You spend countless hours crafting and rehearsing not only your presentation but your stage craft.  You have probably invested tens of thousands in courses and coaching to help you with your delivery and you prepare a few personal stories of your own triumph over vulnerability.  You take a deep breath, and take to the stage.  After the seminar, audience members share their feedback with you and you eagerly sit down to review these valuable insights.

But wait!!!  Are you prepared to read these?

“WOW – you were amazing!  I could sit and listen to you all day.”

“Shoot me now – this was a complete waste of my time”

“OMG – who vetted this speaker?”

Perhaps even less helpful then some of the more critical comments is the event planner who sends you a score card.  What the heck does a 4.3 out of 5 relate to?   How is this helpful to me in polishing and refining my presentation for the next audience?  How can I possibly know what was missing that would have been more useful to those who attended?

Let’s face it, regardless of whether you are a presenter or an employee receiving the annual performance review, we all want to know if we are doing a good job.  And we want the specifics of how we can improve or remain consistent.

Genuine feedback is supposed to help us know that.  It includes any information you receive about yourself and/or your performance. It might be non-verbal or verbal, spoken or written. It might be brief; it might be extensive.

Valuable feedback is that which identifies gaps or opportunities which help you improve your skill.  (Telling me that my team thinks I am a lousy leader without the why is an example of less than helpful feedback).

While comments like “good speech” and “well done” are encouraging and nice to hear, they do nothing to help you improve.   (Good for the ego, but lousy for growth).  Nor do they help the conference organizer with their planning of next year’s roster.

Feedback is useful when it is delivered as a means of preventing or resolving problems, ensure things are done correctly, and ultimately, help you grow and improve. Destructive feedback feels like a personal attack, hurtful, and designed to make you feel bad or put you in your proverbial place (not unlike cyberbullying).  The latter is of no value so pay it no mind.

Yes, I know that is easier said than done.  We humans seem to always focus on that one comment that was vicious rather than the 50 that said we were awesome.  That desire to belong is such a strong motivator for us.

Over years of speaking at conferences and teaching courses, I’ve observed a clear pattern.   Only a third of the room will ever bother to fill in the evaluation (unless there are prizes somehow attached).  Of those, a fraction of the responses (5%) will suggest I’m the best speaker in the world, and another fraction of the responses (5%) will suggest that I’m the worst speaker in the world. Neither of these are true, and I know it.  Keep the “you are amazing” notes for reading on days when you feel like you’re not cut out for this job.  Don’t even bother to read the bottom 5% – those folks aren’t interested in your growth.

I gave up on putting out paper requests for feedback some time ago.  Opting now to spend a little more time after my sessions (whenever possible) asking attendees what additional information they would like to get or answer any questions they might still have about the topic.   Once that conversation is started, I am more likely to discover something I could have said that would be more helpful the next time.

“We can’t just sit back and wait for feedback to be offered, particularly when we’re in a leadership role. If we want feedback to take root in the culture, we need to explicitly ask for it.”
– Ed Batista

Now I have been talking about professional speakers throughout this article, but what about employee feedback.  Well let me share with you a wee secret ….  Same rules apply – be kind and be specific.