In-House Counsel

Moonlighting: Soft Skills — Other People’s Perceptions Are Always Right

One of the most common soft skills issues that comes up in every environment, whether work, home, or play, is how people deal with others’ negative perceptions or criticisms of them.

When we receive negative feedback from others, most of us go autopilot into some level of defensiveness. We’ll tend to find excuses for our behavior (“I was really overworked at that time,” “I was preoccupied by personal issues,” “That wasn’t my intent,” etc.). Or we’ll blame the other person (“She wasn’t paying attention,” “He’s always so closed-minded,” “She doesn’t get the big picture,” etc.).

Even if any of the explanations above are true, there are other ways of responding to criticism and negative feedback that can be lot more helpful….

What’s wrong with the above responses? Isn’t it helpful for everyone to know the truth?? Nah, not much, really. I don’t want to go into a lot of detail on it, but here are a couple of points. These types of responses keep us feeling like a victim instead of acting empowered to change the situation. Also, they just sound plain defensive. And sounding defensive just makes people respect you less and makes them less likely to give you constructive feedback in the future.

The better approach is to take others’ feedback for what it is: their perceptions of the world, including our interactions with them and others. Other people can’t see our intent or whatever other factors have an influence on our behavior. All they can see are our actions and words. And they then reach certain conclusions to explain those actions and words — conclusions that we may or may not agree with. And if any one person is reaching certain conclusions about us, there’s a good chance that there are others having similar reactions. Once we have this information, we can take positive actions on our side to change their perceptions.

Let’s take a simple example. Suppose you’re giving a presentation to a roomful of colleagues. Most of the group pays attention the whole time, but there are a few who chat with each other or yawn audibly every once in a while, which is, of course, distracting to you and other attendees. In fact, it’s downright annoying! GRRRRR…!!! Hypothetically speaking, that is.

So the non-verbal “feedback” you’re receiving is that your presentation is a tad dull. Or perhaps incredibly boring. Somewhere along that spectrum of lackluster unexcitingness. A defensive, victimized approach to this feedback would be to write off those annoying people as inherently rude, lazy, not having their priorities straight, or not “getting” it.

A more useful response to the situation would be to find out (maybe by asking the inattentive delinquents or other attendees) whether your presentation is actually a little umm… uninspiring at certain points and, if so, to figure out how to jazz it up so that your audience stays engaged.

So how do you make things more interesting? Could you include a video, sounds effects, or more attendee interaction? Maybe you could have a quiz at the end with prizes (who doesn’t like a bit of competition with useless prizes???). Perhaps you could improve your monotone delivery by practicing more varying inflections. Not only would these kinds of changes help you to better capture the attention of those who are prone to tune out, they’ll also help the rest of your audience to enjoy the presentation more.

Another example. Suppose the feedback you receive is that a certain project or deal you worked on could have been handled a lot better — the client felt that you rushed through it and didn’t have a lot of confidence that you handled it very thoroughly. Your defensive mode could kick in — “Well, if I’d been given more than two weeks’ notice, it wouldn’t have been so rushed. Duh!”

Or you can figure out ways to increase the likelihood of doing a better job next time. You can ask the client to keep you in the loop earlier on (even when you don’t need to act on anything yet) so that you can better adjust your work schedule to accommodate the timeline. Or you can make more of an effort during crunch periods to delegate out to others or to communicate more thoroughly with your client or manager on how you’re managing your workload. If you can’t think of a better way, ask around about how others handle last-minute deals.

I hope it’s a little clearer that responding to criticism at work by being defensive and making excuses ultimately won’t help you very much in the long run. It also kind of sucks for those around you. Just saying.

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company or anyone she works with. Susan may share both her own and others’ experiences (especially the experiences of those who have expressly indicated to her that they must not under any circumstances be shared on ATL). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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