A coaching client of mine recently had an experience that brought back to me a frequently-forgotten but basic truth. This client (let’s call her Ellen) has been coaching with me for about a year. But last week when she came in, she was emotionally distraught and clearly distracted. She explained that something had happened between her and her best friend and business partner and that she was feeling sick about it. What happened was this. After years of holding in her observations, Ellen finally had told her friend that she thought she was drinking too much. Ellen’s intentions were good and pure. She really just wanted to help. But, her friend/business partner reacted with tremendous anger and hurt. She now didn’t want anything to do with Ellen which involved personal things. Ellen was beside herself because she missed her best friend and felt that she had ruined the friendship forever and put the business relationship in jeopardy.
We talked at length about the problem, the communication, the relationship in general, and, and an ultimate solution. But, most importantly we talked about the fact that we are not responsible for other people’s emotional reactions. Ellen had done her very best to present her concerns lovingly and supportively. The problem was not that Ellen shared her true feelings and observations, but that her friend was not ready to face these facts. Ellen was not responsible for her friend’s hurt and anger. Ellen’s power lay in being a good friend and in sharing her concern. She may also have the power to help her friend work through her anger – but she certainly wasn’t responsible for the manner in which her friend reacted or for her friend’s emotional response.
Today I am going to share with you how this truism applies in all interactions with others so you can feel free to share legitimate and constructive thoughts, even if the other might react negatively or even be hurt. This sharing is part of what makes us vulnerable and helps both us and others grow and improve.
“Never apologize for showing feelings. When you do so, you apologize for the truth.” ~Benjamin Disraeli
Let me ask you a question: have you ever perceived something in another but not told them because you’re afraid of hurting their feelings? I’m sure you have. In fact, it’s in our nature to hold back and temper our observations and comments as a way of preventing others from feeling bad. Just a few obvious examples:
• A colleague talks too much in meetings but we don’t tell them
• A friend thinks she looks great but in reality her clothes are much too young for her age
• A sibling isn’t doing enough to help in a tough family situation
• A friend, lover or co-employee is driving you crazy and causing you anxiety but you don’t share your concerns and reaction
It may be difficult to approach the other and frankly tell them what is not working. You may be 100% sure that you are correctly interpreting the situation, but may hesitate to share your thoughts. However, in each case by failing to share your observations and feelings you are being inauthentic. You are holding back on your own emotions in order to protect another.
There are several problems with this approach.
1. We know all too well, keeping your own feelings inside can take both an emotional and physical toll.
2. You may think you are protecting the would-be recipient from criticism when, in fact, you are shielding them from information that would enable them to make positive changes.
3. You are giving yourself far too much power. The bottom line is this: you are not responsible for how other people react or feel. If you say something intended to be constructive and another takes it badly and feels hurt, that is the result of their own emotional make up. It is not your fault. Each person is responsible for their own feelings.
As a coach giving negative feedback it part of my job description when coaching clients ask me to help them achieve their goals. Let’s take my executive clients who are questioning their business acumen, the direction they want their business to grow, or why they feel stymied in their career growth. In examining the situation, we explore whether they really are geared for success or are hurting and stifling themselves in some hidden way.
Sometimes, I have to challenge my clients with the fact that they are undermining themselves and their futures by applying negative behaviors. No one likes to hear that they not as good as they think they are – not perfect.
Each time I have to tell clients my observations, I run the risk that their feelings will be hurt. But, I don’t run the risk that I will be hurting their feelings. This is a very important distinction. I have learned to impart critiques (rather than criticism) to others. I imbue myself with the ability to communicate my observations with a positive intention. It’s up to the clients how they input and internalize the information that I share. If they are hurt by the observation or got triggered, I will help them with the pain, but I will not take responsibility for their feelings.
I’ve told many clients that they are not acting in their own best interests and causing their own failures in order to help them overcome their blocks to business success. Some clients rise to the occasion and say, “Let’s get started on working through this. I want to overcome.” For others, the initial reaction is less positive, often anger and frustration. These vastly different reactions reflect each client’s emotional makeup and internal workings. They are not bad, they just are. It is important part of the coaching process to acknowledge where one is with themselves. Then, before I can help with building the basis for business success I must detour through helping them with their personal reactions and internalization of the critique. It may sound like a complicated process but it is not. In fact, each client will tell you that it was worth the journey and they are better off for having undertaken it.
Here are some guidelines that might help the next time you are holding back because you are afraid of hurting or angering another person.
1. Each person is responsible for his or her own emotions. Make sure what you are communicating to another is authentic, honorable, empathetic, and not intended to hurt, but to help, and is performed with kindness.
2. Sharing feelings and observations is actually a form of intimacy. You have to be vulnerable to another person’s reaction when you share your authentic opinions. Don’t be afraid; be strong.
3. Each person receives information differently and based on their own emotional makeup and history. Some people are very “tough-skinned” and (seemingly) impervious to criticism. Others are highly sensitive. Some take longer to process information than others. Whatever the recipient’s reaction, that’s on them, not on you.
4. When sharing your feelings be sure to make “I” statements and talk about your experience. People get defensive when they feel judged and blamed.
5. Make sure that you pick a good time to deliver the feedback and whenever possible get permission from the person.
You have strength and you are responsible for helping yourself and others. Sometimes this means that you have to be the bearer of negative thoughts, critiques, impressions and observations. But, remember this – you are not responsible for how others react.