Stuck moment: Oh wow. I didn’t realize that people in the office stopped asking me to play tennis because I take the fun out of it by correcting and analyzing their game. I just thought I was being helpful. I wish someone had told me.
We all have blind spots, little behavioral lapses we aren’t aware of. Often they’re small and seem unimportant to mention — for example, an inability to take a compliment, which can make others feel awkward, too; or a self-appointed role as Emily Post, which paints everyone (except us) as gauche; or a tendency to always naysay, which we think is being helpfully realistic, but can be a killer weed to others’ hopes.
Whatever our foibles are, we mean well. And the people who really know us — especially those who love us — know we mean well, too. Which is why they find it hard to tell us when we may have a habit in the range of mildly inappropriate to annoying. So no one lets us know when a particular behavior might be getting in our way. It’s like we’ve all signed some bro code or social contract that requires us to pat each other on the back, celebrate all that’s positive about each other, and stay quiet about the rest.
But sometimes a small tweak can open up big possibilities. So why not lean on a trusted inner circle to help us see our blind spots and illuminate a fresh perspective that just might help us get unstuck?
Here’s some advice on how to start.
Prepare yourself to get even better
The ego is a sensitive thing. Getting someone’s two cents on where we have room to improve can make us feel inadequate — and that’s the greatest sticking point to giving and receiving meaningful feedback.
Job 1: Recognize that it’s okay to have flaws, and to give ourselves the go-ahead to look them straight on. Embrace the following:
• Admit that no one’s perfect. Everyone has different areas to work on. Everyone. Our willingness to discover and address those areas is how we make life better.
• Separate judgment of behavior from judgment of self. Maybe you have a bawdy wit that gets you in trouble at your in-laws, or a zealous enthusiasm for sharing chapter-by-chapter Games of Thrones knowledge which puts a damper on office lunches (particularly mid-season!). There’s nothing inherently wrong with your wit or your enthusiasm. It’s just that particular behavior in that particular context that gets you stuck.
• Put yourself in others’ shoes. If feedback makes you uncomfortable, consider that the behavior in question might discomfit someone in a way you didn’t intend. Try to drop your defenses and shift your perspective from victimhood to responsibility.
• Compete with yourself, not with the crowd. The only person that’s really watching you — and whose judgment really matters — is you. Don’t get distracted by what anyone else is up to.
Pick your people
Shaka Senghor, who shared his story of transformation from angry young man with a rap sheet to published writer and neighborhood changemaker, emphasizes how important it is to build a circle of people who keep you honest. You don’t want yes men or anyone whose idea of comfort is to embrace victimhood. You also don’t want to be overwhelmed with negativity.
We know we can always count on a treasured few (your mom, your brother, a childhood BFF) to give it to us straight, but soliciting feedback from people outside that select set can be tricky. We only need one or two members to add to our feedback posse, however. Use these tips to help you pick your most effective circle:
• Work from a foundation of trust and shared principles. Someone who has your back is someone who understands your priorities and will help you stick to them with feedback that’s thoughtful and personal.
• Count on people with the confidence to say the unpopular thing and who know that your relationship can withstand it, perhaps even thrive from it.
• Make use of people’s strengths. When there’s credibility behind the advice — whether earned by life experience or formal training — you’ll hear it differently, and your friends will be flattered you’ve asked them. For example, it might be smart to get career coaching from someone’s whose career trajectory you admire.
• And yet, sometimes the best feedback comes from people who have earned insights the hard way: through struggling, failing, and trying again. They may not have it all figured out, but compassion and a capacity to reflect on missteps go a long way. For example, if you’re having relationship problems, maybe it’s better to approach a single friend who is thoughtful about her own romantic issues rather than a glowing newlywed.
Set the stage for conversation
A feedback circle is most effective when you create an open channel for those you trust to offer constructive criticism whenever you need it to get unstuck — sometimes, even before you know that you’re stuck. You’re giving them a blank check to always have your back.
But the first feedback conversation is the hardest to initiate. Before you approach your friend for a one-on-one over dinner or coffee, set some ground rules for yourself:
• Be clear about boundaries, both your own and others. If you feel that someone’s comments cross a personal boundary of trust, be honest about it.
• Avoid asking for feedback when you’re angry, depressed, or feel like you hate the world. Everything your friend says will be shaded by that negative emotion. And that’s not fair to them, nor to ourselves.
• Know when you’re venting, and when you want advice and say it out loud. If you have a reputation as a venter, people might assume that you don’t truly want feedback.
• Be upfront about why you’re soliciting advice. What do you want? What are you stuck on? How are you feeling about it? How will the feedback help you? Who else is involved? If you’re not sure, the Unstuck app can help you surface the answers to many of these questions.
• Once you’ve given someone permission to offer you advice, don’t fence them in. They’re on your team; trust them to be sensitive and respectful. (And if you can’t trust them to do that, maybe choose someone else to talk with.)
Make the feedback count
Now it’s all about framing the feedback in a way that’s most useful to you. Here are some strategies:
• Lead with a discussion of what you’re already doing well before requesting feedback on where there’s room to improve. This keeps the tone of the conversation positive, and also keeps the focus on how to build on your strengths and not how to tear you down. This approach comes from the animation world, where it’s called “plussing.”
• Context is everything. Ask whether a behavior is inappropriate in all contexts, or just one in particular. A quirky fashion sense might have to be muted at work, for example, but be a wonderful source of inspiration to your friends.
• If you hear something that you don’t agree with, try to avoid an immediate defensive reaction, such as, “You just don’t get it.” Say: “That’s something I need to think about a little more” and do so when you’re alone. Consider it from your friend’s perspective.
• Ask for feedback that breaks things down to particular actions and behavior, with examples. Feedback that focuses just on outcomes (i.e. “You didn’t get the promotion because you’re too shy!”) doesn’t give you enough to build on. What exactly about your shyness is holding you back?
• Do NOT ask for gossip about yourself. There’s a reason that you’re requesting feedback from a person you trust — whose opinion is so much more valuable than noise from the peanut gallery could ever be.
Once you’ve digested the feedback, you’ll start to notice behaviors and reactions in yourself and others that you were blind to before. This is great progress! And it’s the opportunity to start adjusting your behavior. But please be patient with yourself. Habits are difficult to change, but not insurmountable. It takes practice.
Next week: Nine original stories about dealing with disrespect
Last week: How to find your missing motivation