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Even if you're one of the most skilled communicators in the world, sometimes you'll meet people who don't like what you have to say. That's always a possibility when you're giving feedback. You can't fully control how someone will react to the information you wish to give them. You can however control how you react to their reaction. These situations pop up more than you might think. And the longer you're in a leadership position, and the more feedback you give out, the more you'll see many different types of negative reactions.
Consider these common examples. Someone might question the quality of the data you're relying on. They might accuse you personally of lacking sufficient insight or knowledge. They might blame others and suggest that your feedback should be given to someone else. It's possible they feel you're playing favorites and simply don't like them. They might make exaggerated excuses about their circumstances, their colleagues, or their resources. Finally, it's also possible, they might suggest you're threatening them, and they want to talk to someone above you or in human resources.
Let's be clear. These reactions aren't common, but they do happen, and when they do, you want to be prepared. When you're dealing with unexpected negative emotional reactions, there are several steps to consider, but there's one rule more than any other to keep in mind. Never respond to strong emotions with strong emotions. In fact, don't respond to strong emotions with any emotion. Take a deep breath and say to yourself, okay this person is getting very emotional, but I will not.
Instead, you're going to follow these steps by paying attention to the severity of their reaction. First, if you see a mildly elevated show of emotion don't react at all, there's no cause for alarm. We all show a little emotion and that's okay. However, make a mental note when it happens because you do want to be sensitive to the possibility that a pattern is emerging. Next, if you see the person use a strong negative emotion especially if it's in an escalation, your reaction should be to pause, sit quietly for a couple moments longer than normal following their outburst.
By creating this space immediately following their show of emotion, you're saying a lot without saying one word. As a result, most people then become self-aware and apologize or simply move on, with their emotions more in check. Moving forward, if you see a second strong emotion, a more overt reaction becomes appropriate. In this case, it's time to name the issue that just happened. Actually say that you see that they're becoming upset. Tell them that was not your intention, then start unemotionally talking about the issue again.
State the issue, redirect them, and move on. Once you've actually stated that they need to check their emotions, they usually will, and then you're back on track. If, however, you see persistent, strong, or any extreme emotions, you have to escalate passed naming it and move on to providing a warning. Something like this, Tom I see you're angry, respectfully I have to say that's not appropriate. If you can't be in control and civil, we'll have to end this conversation and I'll have to speak to HR. Do you understand that? If there is any continuation of inappropriate negativity, end the conversation and walk away.
Document what happened and immediately contact human resources. Of course, if for any reason you sense danger, call security. Giving feedback is a normal, healthy part of leadership, but even if you know what you're doing, sometimes people won't like what you have to say. When emotions are at play, things can get out of control quickly. If you follow the steps we just discussed, you can help them, and you, avoid unnecessary conflict, and keep the conversation civil and productive.
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