My reactions and responses

Here’s something I wrote last summer (after our documentation-group gathering at work) but ended up not posting at the time.

Yesterday afternoon, as part of our mini-conference at work, I attended a session about how to usefully give criticism/negative feedback to co-workers (especially to people who report to you), in which people gave a bunch of useful suggestions that I hope will come in handy next time I have to have such a conversation.

But the thing that surprised me most about that session was what happened when I mentioned that I’ve had a hard time giving that kind of feedback in various contexts: Two of my colleagues spoke up to say that they felt that I do a particularly good job of that, especially on internal mailing lists. (Worth noting that both of the people who explicitly praised me about this were white men; I don’t know whether other folks in the room have the same impression of me.)

Which made me feel really good—that was great to hear. But it was also a little confusing/surprising, because I know how often my handling of such situations doesn’t meet my own standards.

I think that the kind of interaction that my colleagues were praising me for isn’t quite the same thing as the kind of negative feedback that we were talking about in that session. So for the rest of this post, I’m setting the negative-feedback context aside, and just looking at my mailing-list responses (and other similar online responses) from my own point of view:

I get easily irritated by certain kinds of behaviors, especially in written online communication, and I too often respond from that place of irritation.

At my best, I do handle such situations well. I manage to breathe, pause, step away from the interaction for a minute, calm myself down, and then come back and respond from a place of empathy, of understanding what the other person meant even if their phrasing wasn’t perfect, of honesty and vulnerability. I can sometimes even mention—gently—that I was annoyed or upset by the other person’s phrasing or framing.

But at my worst—too often—I instead react with defensiveness and lashing-out. And I almost always regret that later, especially when (as is often the case) I later see that what I was irritated by was something really minor.

I’m not suggesting that nobody should respond to anything while they’re distressed; there are plenty of situations and contexts where it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to respond with distress. (And please don’t take this post as an opportunity to complain about anyone else’s reactions or responses to things.) I’m just saying that in my own life, I too often overreact to minor irritations.

So what I’m hoping to take away from yesterday’s unexpected praise is a reinforcement of my desire to be better at this kind of thing—hoping that I can live up to my colleagues’ respect about this.

(No advice, please.)

One Response to “My reactions and responses”

  1. Sumana Harihareswara

    Sometimes a similar thing happens to me, where I believe I have a hard time doing something and, simultaneously, I learn that someone else believes I do that thing well. Disorienting!


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