Receiving feedback without feeling defensive or triggered is a challenge.
I work with my students and clients to increase their resiliency and ability to get the best from feedback of supervisors and co-workers, because it is an important aspect of conflict management and clear communication skills.
After reading the wonderful book, White Fragility, in which Robin deAngelo discusses at length and with tremendous clarity why many white people react defensively to any conversation around race and racism, I realized it is a perfect (extreme) example of how people react in general to any feedback they perceive as negative.
So many of us grow up being taught to be ashamed of any mistakes we make or misunderstandings we have. I know I believed any mistakes meant I was bad and wrong, permanently.
Without training and help, we can’t listen for what is true in the feedback or what might be helpful to us; we are too busy protecting ourselves from harm. So, any extreme negative feedback hits a hot button, (emotional trigger) and we lash out and react to defend ourselves and our very lives.
And being accused of racism feels like the worst negative feedback of all. According to deAngelo, we are socialized to believe that if we do or say something even a little bit racist, we are being told we are irredeemably evil people.
We equate racism with lynching, with horrible violence, and deny that we probably demonstrate unconscious bias and micro-aggressions. We can’t distinguish between our personal responsibility and the bedrock of racism and white supremacy our society is built on.
When we are busy defending ourselves, around racism or any shortcomings, we are closed to growing and changing, to being better people, better workers, better managers. So, how can we be open to change?
Here are some steps that have helped me and my clients:
- Love yourself—No matter what I don’t understand, no matter what mistakes I make, no matter how out of control my feelings or responses are, I am worthy of love and so are you. As Melanie Beattie says, “I make mistakes; I am not a mistake.” Even if I do or say something racist, that doesn’t mean I’m irredeemably bad or unworthy of love. Nor does it mean I can’t grow and change. I help my clients work on this with guided visualizations and simple affirmations. And, for myself, I realize with self-kindness how much I don’t know.
- Be willing to listen. Defensiveness is like putting your hands over your ears and saying, “I can’t/won’t hear you.” Your good intentions count, but they can’t give you a free pass to avoid hearing about the harm you did or the hurtful way something you said or did landed. But surrounding yourself and filling yourself with love gives you more capacity to hear another perspective without putting up barriers.
- Look at what is true and what you don’t know. Be curious. Be detached. Is there any truth to what someone else is saying? What different information do they have that changes their perspective? Do other people agree with them? What are you missing? We all have blind spots, often supported by the way our institutions function. It takes work and willingness to see things differently.
- Change your thinking and behavior. I often tell my clients that it takes time, patience, love, persistence to change. Especially with racism, most of us have been taught a way of behaving and speaking since we were very little. We don’t have to make ourselves wrong or bad in order to strive to be better, to understand more, to love more, to listen more generously.