Don't Get Defensive Over Abrupt Feedback

Pete Ross

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When I got out of the army, one of the most striking details of the working world for me was how nice everybody is. Everyone is so monitored in their language that no one ever comes close to saying what they mean, so performance issues go unchecked until they are really noticeable, people don’t resolve workplace conflicts and Sally from accounts just continues to ride roughshod over everyone because no one can bring themselves to tell her to pull her head in.

Sound familiar?

I found this striking because none of that was the case when I was in the military. Most people picture boot camp and even daily life for an enlisted soldier as one where you get yelled at, have your head slammed through a chalkboard and other, rather unpleasant things. Sure, you get yelled at, but it isn’t all the time, or even that often if you have your act together. The one thing that any superior or instructor in the military won’t hesitate to give you, however, is immediate, abrupt feedback when you do something wrong.

Most people make the mistake of believing that there is some kind of sadistic pleasure taken in doing this. I can assure you there isn’t. The reason you are given abrupt feedback in the military is that there is no room for ambiguity. In combat, everything needs to be crystal clear so the person receiving the order has no doubt as to what they are expected to do. This begins in recruit training and continues whether you’re at peace or in combat. The great thing about it is you always know where you stand.

The feedback is always matter of fact, expressed without emotion:

  • “Your boot has a scuff mark on it” (said during a dress inspection)
  • “This knot is garbage, do it again”
  • “You lack a sense of urgency”
  • “Get your hand up!” (said during drill)
  • “That’s a poor effort”

The correct response to any of these is “yes sir!” No complaints, no justifications, no excuses. A superior doesn’t have the time or inclination to sit you down and explain to you why — you probably already know why, or you can figure it out pretty quick. The feedback is abrupt, but it’s impersonal. It’s not saying “you’re a useless human being and you’re a screw up and I hate you” — it’s only saying that something is wrong and you need to fix it.

No one takes it personally either, because everyone gets the same feedback. No one gets back to the mess and says “did you hear the tone sarg had when he told me my knot wasn’t good? I swear he just hates me. I’m never getting promoted.”

Now, you probably think I’m just an a-hole that wants people to be yelled at and treated poorly, but that’s not the case at all. Having the truth delivered to you in an unvarnished manner is one of the greatest gifts you can receive when learning anything at all in life, whether it be writing an essay, a new skill, or a new job. It’s a great gift because there is no dancing around the issue, no muddying of the facts, just the straight truth. That means there is no ambiguity and you can fix whatever the problem is.

Let’s say I’m a master carpenter on a job site and you’re my apprentice. You’ve just finished shaping a piece of wood that is a millimetre out of spec, with an ever so slight roughness to it. My response upon inspecting it is:

“I told you 5mm, not 6mm idiot, and the edge is terrible. Do it this way with this sandpaper”.

That’s the sort of language you’re likely to find on any building site around the world, one of the last bastions of abrupt feedback. Now, you could sit the apprentice down and give him a long speech about why what he did was wrong, but the above is far more effective. That’s because in a single sentence, this kind of feedback has accomplished 5 things:

  1. It has taught the apprentice that imperfection isn’t tolerated. That you do it right, or you don’t bother doing it at all.
  2. It has taught the apprentice not to try getting away with even little things.
  3. It has taught the apprentice exactly what the problem is.
  4. It has taught the apprentice how to fix the problem.
  5. It has made the apprentice feel guilty for doing a poor job so they won’t do it again.

Think about how often in life we could use abrupt feedback — which is usually just the blunt truth mind you, but because everyone has been shaped to be nice all the time, we never get it. It’s only in certain fields which, by their nature, are harsh. When I was competing in judo, our coaches didn’t say “how often do you eat vegetables?” or “is anything the matter?” or “you’re looking a little slow”. Nope. They said “hey, you’re looking fat”.

Now, by normal societal standards your typical competition judoka is obviously far from fat, but by competition standards they may look like they are drifting too far away to make weight. It isn’t a coach’s job to coddle you and spare your feelings, they are there to make sure you give your best performance on the mat, and they have a whole bunch of other athletes to look after. Why should they waste time beating around the bush for something that is your responsibility anyway?

Now compare this to the kind of feedback you get daily from those close to you:

“Oh you’re fine, you look great! You don’t need to lose any weight at all”.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a few drinks over the weekend”.

“Saving money is hard, don’t stress that you aren’t following your budget, no one does”.

“Just be yourself and you’ll find the right person eventually, there’s nothing wrong with you”.

It’s understandable that the people in our lives don’t want to criticise us, because none of us are perfect and it’s easy to ruin a relationship by being blunt over the wrong thing or being too blunt in general. Unfortunately this puts the average person at a distinct disadvantage compared to the typical soldier, because soldiers have the luxury of being told in the most blunt fashion all of the ways that they are deficient. This goes all the way from how they might act during an engagement drill to their personal hygiene — nothing is off the table at recruits or in the military in general. Once you’re told, you fix it and move on. Each new piece of feedback is just another problem to fix, and because it isn’t personal you get on with it and don’t take it to heart.

As the civilian world lacks this kind of harsh feedback, most walk around unaware of what their problems are or how many people perceive them. They lack self awareness. So the question is, how do we fix this?

Who can you turn to?

No matter how much you ask them to, your family and close friends aren’t going to all of a sudden start telling you the blunt truth about what you’re doing wrong and what to change. They value their relationship with you and won’t jeopardise it in such a fashion. Strangers aren’t any good either, because they don’t know you well enough to really give any insight aside from what they see physically.

There are a few options though. A psychologist might be a good place to start, because it’s their job to uncover emotional issues and help you to put in place processes to override them. I’d also seek the opinions of your closest one or two friends and see what you get. I have one friend that is insanely good at giving feedback — he doesn’t shy away from telling you the truth if it’s negative, but he doesn’t do it in a way that makes him come across like an a-hole.

That’s the ideal, but it’s pretty difficult to find. If your closest friend is one that simply can’t be honest about anything negative, you may need to ask the question in another way. Saying “what do you think my bad points are?” is most likely not going to get you very far. Instead, you want to frame it in a fashion where you give them permission to tell you. Let’s be honest here, you probably have an idea what your bad points may be, so start there. Ask something like “hey, I get out of control when I drink a bit too much don’t I?” That is likely to elicit the response you’re after. Even if they don’t answer outright, their body language will tell you the truth of the matter before their words do.

It’s probably not a bad idea to seek out people in your circle that are known for being harsh in general as well. It’s going to be tough to swallow initially when you haven’t been exposed to that kind of feedback, but avoid the need to get defensive and hit back, just take in everything they say and mentally file it away for later. Come back to it when you are calm and detached, at which point you need to start asking yourself the tough questions. Self awareness is one of the most difficult things to nail in life, because the vast majority of people have no interest in bursting your bubble. They’d rather just whine about you behind your back.

The big thing I want you to take away from this is that abrupt criticism isn’t about you. It’s about your actions. If someone says “hey, there are a lot of mistakes in this,” that’s not a personal attack. That’s a matter of fact statement about what they’re seeing. That’s a cue for you to swallow your pride and say “oh really, let me take a look.” If they are correct, apologise and resolve to not do it again. Whatever the reason was it doesn’t matter, fix it and move on.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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