At Slush 2018, Justin Rosenstein (software programmer and co-founder of Asana) mentioned blunt feedback as one of the things we should all learn how to embrace. I know from experience that blunt feedback is critical to my learning and yet I'm afraid to receive it. I know that I can elevate my co-workers by sharing feedback with them and yet I find myself focusing exclusively on project management when I try to boost team performance.
If embracing blunt feedback doesn't come naturally to me, how can I incorporate it into my life in a more thoughtful manner?
One possible way forward is to start paying more attention to defensiveness—both my personal defensiveness and the defensiveness of other people. Defensiveness is a simple signal that tells us we need to readjust our perspective or improve our communication.
We sometimes get defensive when we have personal issues with the individual giving us the feedback. But more often we get defensive because we are not able to separate our actions from our identity. We often fail to distance ourselves from the critique. When we interpret blunt feedback as criticism towards who we are as a person, we put our guard up.
It helps to change our inner narrative. For example, when I receive negative feedback about my communication, I can easily tell myself that this person is proposing that I'm a bad co-worker or that I'm a jerk. I tell myself that my identity is being challenged and that I need to disprove the other party. What I should do instead is to tell myself that this person is trying to point out the behavior that is currently conflicting with my true intentions and character.
We can help each other to avoid this unproductive inner narrative by focusing our feedback more towards actions and behaviors instead of characters and personalities. But unfortunately, we can't fully rely on other people to become better feedback givers. The sad fact is that often people will think that what you do reflects who you are. This is because of the fundamental attribution error which argues that we explain away our personal mistakes with circumstances but others' mistakes with character flaws (e.g. "I'm late from our meeting because the metro ran late but your lateness is evidence of your disorganized character").
You should acknowledge the fundamental attribution error and you should try to fight it. When you experience defensiveness from other people, you might be accidentally making vocal judgements about their character.
In some situations, to move the feedback more towards actions and behaviors, you can use the therapist and researcher John Gottman's XYZ statement "when you do X in situation Y, I feel Z" as a way to construct your feedback. In a software team setting that statement might look something like this: "when I raise an accessibility concern in a design meeting and you laugh it off, I feel unheard."
But most importantly, remember to pay attention to defensiveness. It's a symptom of something. And you need to figure out what that something is.