Develop Your Feedback Fallback Phrase

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This week’s tip is about intentionally developing your feedback fallback phrase. If you’re like most folks, you already have one of these, but you may not have put much thought into making it work for your needs. Okay, so a feedback fallback phrase is the phrase you use after you’ve received feedback you need time to process.

Note: for more on processing feedback, see my article at Harvard Business Review.

If you receive feedback about fixing a typo, a simple “Thank you for catching that. I’ll make the edit as soon as possible” will do. But for feedback that feels challenging, perhaps because it brought forth your defensiveness or because you aren’t sure you agree with it — it can be helpful to have a phrase that:

  1. Acknowledges receipt of the feedback
  2. Grants you space to process and
  3. Helps you avoid falling into the Fight-Flight-Freeze-Fawn (4F) trap.

Let’s say you are driving a digital transformation project that demands a change in a particular department’s culture. Early in the project, a concerned colleague pulls you aside.

“I want you to succeed on this project, so I hope this feedback is helpful,” they begin. Then they say: “Okay, here’s the deal: you are making many loyal employees very uncomfortable on this project of yours.”

“Here’s the deal.” Highlighting the employee’s loyalty. Apparently speaking on their behalf. Even “project of yours” as though this isn’t a collaborative effort. So many parts of this comment have you spinning.

In the moment, and without a fallback phrase, many receivers would fall into the 4Fs. They may fight by firing back with intense energy, saying something like “That’s a ridiculous comment” or “If people here have a problem with me, they can say it to my face.” They may engage in flight characteristics, such as fidgeting or feeling the need to run away (or shut off the camera).

Or they may freeze entirely as they either disassociate or have so many things to say that they can’t say anything. Or, they may appease the giver by fawning, which could mean saying something like: “Wow. Thank you so much. You always provide the insights I need. The last thing I want to do is make people feel uncomfortable. I’ll immediately get to work on changing my approach.”

As you can see, the 4Fs are more of a reaction than a response. While there is nothing wrong with disagreeing or defending yourself from an attack, a heated comment about “saying it to your face” isn’t likely coming from your best, most grounded self. And it’s not likely to lead to a great outcome. Getting to that grounded self-state — and making a decision from there — will likely lead to a far better response, and that is why it’s important to have a feedback fallback phrase.

Imagine if the receiver had instead responded with this:

“Got it. I hear what you’re saying and I need time to process it.”

This response would have acknowledged receipt, let the giver know their words were being taken seriously, and granted the receiver some space to respond more thoughtfully. These types of phrases can come in infinite variations and can be used in various situations in your personal and professional life.

Because developing self-awareness is critical here, it can be helpful to create a feedback fallback phrase and work through the following 3-step exercise to reflect and practice.

Step One: Being gentle enough not to cause yourself emotional distress, imagine a feedback example that could cause you to move toward the 4Fs. You might try thinking about both the giver’s content and delivery.

Step Two: As you imagine that example, what emotions and bodily sensations arise? Really feel into them. It may be helpful to take an inventory of what arises.

Step Three: Lastly, what feedback fallback phrase could have been helpful? Why?


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