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| September 24, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Been gobsmacked1 recently? You are in a team meeting and make a proposal you believe is well thought out. You feel your work is solid. A coworker viciously attacks your proposal. Or, a friend, who also is your boss’s, boss’s boss, unexpectedly calls you early one morning to strongly admonish you for a comment you had made to a student employee at a demonstration about a university action the previous evening. (Just, how did he know?) Or, a staff member asks to meet with you, her manager, and when she arrives tells you that you are arrogant and difficult to work with.
Said differently, in the midst of life – a meeting, a walk down the hallway, a performance review – someone delivers a verbal blow that rocks your psychological footing. In each instance words such as overwhelmed, stunned, shocked, left speechless, dumbstruck, attacked, thunderstruck are emotions that come to mind. That’s gobsmacked.
Joseph Grenny, in his essay “How to Be Resilient in the Face of Harsh Criticism,”2 reports on his study of 445 such incidents. The comments reported to him were high octane criticisms: — [you] “should think about leaving,” “I don’t need wimps,” “you don’t care about others,” “you make others feel less respected,” etc.
These and similar incidents happen and have happened to many, likely all, of us. When they do, our psychological footing is shaken. Our immediate reaction is a mix of shame, resentment, fear, and anger. Such critical feedback “feels traumatic because it threatens two of our most fundamental psychological needs: safety (personal physical, social, or material security) and worth (a sense of self-respect, self-regard, or self-confidence).”2,3
Much good advice is available to help us when we face such situations. (See, for example, the essays of Joseph Grenny,2,3 Stacey Lastoe,4 Donald Latumahina,5 and Morag Barrett.6) Collectively, their advice falls into four areas:

  • Collect yourself and listen
  • Understand, evaluate objectively, ask questions, say thank you
  • Recover
  • Engage.

The first words for each of these areas come from Grenny.2 Their initial letters form an easy-to-remember acronym — C U R E — which is a very helpful reminder of several behaviors we might practice so as to be prepared when we find ourselves under pressure.
Collect Yourself.  Although your amygdala may be signaling danger, you are most likely physically safe. Breathe deeply. Observe what you are feeling. Don’t become defensive. Recognizing how you feel – angry, scared, embarrassed, resentful, ashamed – and connecting with these primary emotions will keep you from becoming focused on secondary effects like defensiveness or exaggerated fear. Grenny3 tells us that “Emotions come prepackaged with tacit external attribution. Because an external event always precedes my experience of an emotion, it’s easy to assume that the event caused it. But as long as I believe the event was externally caused, I am doomed to be the victim of my emotions.” As you listen, taking in the information, you may find it helpful to repeat a phrase like, “I made a mistake, I am not a mistake”2 to help keep you grounded. Recognizing, owning, and shaping your emotions is a master skill for magnifying your influence and turning ideas into results.
Understand.  Be curious. Ask questions. Seek to understand. Through it all carefully listen. You may find it helpful to manually position yourself as an interested observer. That way you can more objectively ask questions and NOT go immediately into evaluating everything that is said. Your role, at this point, is like that of a reporter, understanding the story.
Recover.   When you get to the point where you understand the story, say “thank you,” and ask for some time to think about the conversation and commit to responding in the near future, as soon as you can recover and give the conversation some serious thought.
Engage the issue.  When you engage the issue, you are looking for the truth, the actual substance of the engagement. Once you identify this, you can begin to act. It may require continuing the discussion, reporting what you decided to the individual who initiated the issue. Above all, don’t be defensive. And, stick to the issue at hand and not wander off to some other subject.
So, you’ve been gobsmacked. It’s not the end of the world. You’ve worked to build the skills and you have a C U R E. So, take a deep breath. Collect yourself, develop an understanding of the issue, recover, and engage.
Make it a great week for you and your team.  .  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Notes and References:

  1. Gobsmacked. ”Flabbergasted, amazed, astounded `literally smacked (“hit”) in the gob (“mouth (Irish/Scottish Gaelic)”). Wiktionary.
  2. Joseph Grenny, How to Be Resilient in the Face of Harsh Criticism, Harvard Business Review, June 2019.
  3. Joseph Grenny, 4 Ways to Control Your Emotions in Tense Moments, Harvard Business Review, December 2016.
  4. Stacey Lastoe, This is How You Handle Negative Feedback, According to Career Experts, The Muse, March 2017.
  5. Donald Latumahina, Celestine Chua, How to Handle Negative Feedback in 6 Simple Steps, (undated).
  6. Morag Barett, 6 Tips for Hearing Tough, January 2017.