How to Receive Difficult Feedback

People often dismiss feedback because they don’t like it, don’t agree with it, or don’t like the way it is delivered. But if we dismiss it, we may be sending a message that we don’t want to hear any feed- back. People may stop coming to us. And if this happens, we may miss valuable information. Remember; where there is smoke, there is fire. When someone tells us something, others usually have similar thoughts but lack the courage to say something. So it is a good idea to assume that others think the same thing.

It may be painful, but receiving feedback is a key to growth in life. If you think about the times you have grown the most, you may notice that those times came after you received some difficult feedback. After I had been conducting seminars for a year, I had a friend attend an evening speech to give me feedback. When I called to get his feedback, he began by saying, “You know, Steve, I am your friend…” and then for the next hour, he proceeded to rip the presentation apart. I walked around feeling sorry for myself for several days. I even thought I might be in the wrong profession. But then I realized that virtually all the feedback he gave me was about things I could change. I took most of his advice, made the changes, and the next time I delivered the speech, I was light years ahead of where I would have been without it.

How do you receive advice, especially when it is difficult to hear or you don’t like the way someone says it? Here are four tips.

1. Think of yourself as a sponge.
Listen, soak in the advice, and try not to respond. You can always wring it out and let go of it later. Don’t respond verbally or non-verbally; stay receptive. Remember, even if you are not happy with the feedback, it is better to know than not to know. After all, you can’t take action on something you don’t know about. It is better to receive unfiltered feed- back than to have others filter it for you.

2. Take notes.
If you find yourself wanting to debate the issue, remind yourself not to interrupt. Instead, write down your thoughts as the person is talking. If they ask you what you are writing, be honest and say, “I have some thoughts, but I want to really hear what you have to say before I respond, and I appreciate you talking to me.” People usually have mixed feelings while giving feedback. If you interject, they may turn off the feedback valve. Again, make them feel safe. Take notes to reduce the temptation to interrupt, respond, or debate.

3. Separate the message from the messenger.
Don’t get hung up on the words. Listen for the true message of what they are trying to convey. Sometimes when people are upset (or just because of the way they are), they do not say things in a way that is easy to hear. For example, they may say it with condescension or they may say it with an attitude. This may tempt you to dismiss what they are saying. Catch yourself. Remember, just because you don’t like the way someone says something or the person saying it, does not mean what they are saying is not valid, important, or beneficial.

4. Look for the gold.
It is easy to dismiss feedback when you don’t like what is said. The hard part is to take it in, sift through it, and look for the gold. Even if a lot of it is off-target, resist the urge to say, “This is wrong and has no merit.” Instead, ask yourself, “How can I benefit and grow from this feedback? What is helpful or useful?”

Think of feedback as a growth pill. You can choose whether to swallow it or not. The difference in your life can be tremendous.

Take Action
Pass this tip on to people you care about; your co-workers, your boss, your employees, your family and friends. Use it as a basis to talk to the people around your office, in your organization, and your personal life. Consider those times when feedback has not been so easy, and how you could have approached or reacted differently. If you get stuck, send me an email or contact my office for help at 703 241 7796.

How to Get What You Deserve

I’ve noticed that many participants in my seminars are struggling because they are not getting what they want from others. They are hoping that people will get the point (their subtle hints) and give them what they want—whether it is a promotion or a raise at work, or flowers or cards in their romantic relationships. Unfortunately, this “hoping” often causes disappointment because people don’t always do what we hope they will do.

The answer to this dilemma is simple. Don’t wait; start asking for what you really want. I know what you might be thinking… if someone gives you what you want because you ask for it, it is not as meaningful as if they just figured it out on their own. I agree. But the trouble is that not asking usually doesn’t produce what you want. If you’re not getting what you want, you have three options: you can complain about it, throw the relationship (or job) away, or do something about it. If you do something about it, then maybe people will learn how to treat you correctly. After all, the only person you can control is you.

If you’re in this situation, I recommend that you try training and conditioning people to treat you the way you want to be treated. The results can actually be life altering. My close friend was dating someone who told him, “You don’t appreciate me.” So he asked her how she would like him to express his appreciation for her. She said that she’d like cards and flowers and other small tokens of affection. He asked her why she hadn’t simply asked him for these things so he would know what to do.

She replied, “If I have to ask you, it will lose most of its meaning.”

He responded, “True. But it isn’t working this way, and I keep missing it. So why don’t you try asking and let’s see if over time, I can learn what to do.”

Reluctantly she started to ask for things. Most often he responded by giving her those things. Eventually my friend caught on and needed fewer reminders from his girlfriend. In other words he “got it.” And then one day, his girlfriend discovered that he really got it.

Here’s what happened. One day my friend’s girlfriend was told by her boss that the two of them would need to travel to London for business. When the day came and they arrived at the airport, her boss informed her he was not going with her and in fact she was not going to London. He gave her a notebook from her boyfriend to read through. She was to follow all of the instructions in the notebook. In the notebook was a ticket to Ireland where her boyfriend would be meeting her as well as strict instructions not to ask any questions once she landed.

She followed the instructions and flew to Ireland where her boyfriend met her. That night they stayed at a bed and breakfast. The next morning, the boyfriend left the room and the proprietor of the B&B knocked soon after and said, “Please come with me.” The proprietor drove the girlfriend to a field and dropped her off.

Let’s pause here. Just a day earlier this woman thought she was going on a business trip. Instead she found herself in a foreign country standing in the middle of a barren field early in the morning without anyone around. In other words, who knows what might happen when you start asking for what you want.

Soon the girlfriend saw someone coming across the field on horseback. As the person got closer, she realized it was someone dressed in a battlefield costume like in the movie Braveheart. Eventually she discovered it was her boyfriend.

What the girlfriend didn’t realize was that she was standing in the middle of a historic battlefield. Her boyfriend was from Ireland and he had paid someone to come up with an authentic costume of what people wore when they were going into battle — complete with a shield with his family’s coat of arms.

When he rode up to her, he got off the horse, turned to her, and said, “I want you to know the man I am and the family I come from. Will you spend the rest of your life with me?” And he gave her an engagement ring. She said yes and they now are married with two children.

You see, my friend got it. Because his girlfriend spoke up and asked for what she wanted, my friend learned the kind of things that made his girlfriend feel loved, valued, and appreciated. It isn’t that he didn’t love and appreciate his girlfriend before; he did. He simply didn’t know how important it was to her that he express that love and appreciation in particular ways. Because she helped him to understand that, eventually he learned. He learned to such an extent he was able to envision a proposal that would speak to her heart — an idea he came up with entirely on his own.

His girlfriend had successfully helped to train and condition him to appreciate her in the way she would want to be appreciated. In the beginning it may have not been that romantic; it may have even seemed laborious. But look at the results!

This principle isn’t just true for romantic relationships. Asking for what you want has applications in all aspects of life. Are you asking for what you want at work? Are you hoping to get a promotion or raise?

No matter what area of your life you want more results in, speak up, ask for what you want, and help make it happen…And watch out for a man riding a horse!

Take Action
Pass this tip on to people you care about; your co-workers, your boss, your employees, your family and friends. Use it as a basis to talk to the people around your office, in your organization, and your personal life. Consider when you are not getting the results you want in life and start putting a plan into action. If you get stuck, send me an email or contact my office for help at 703 241 7796.

Do Your Conversations Get Sidetracked? Beware of Red Herrings!

By: Steven Gaffney

Has anyone ever said something they know is irritating to you to divert the conversation away from the real issue? It has happened to all of us. Afterward, you walk away and think, “I don’t think they ever addressed my concern.”

For instance, have you confronted someone about turning something in late, and instead of addressing the issue, they respond by reminding you of the things you did not complete on time? They do this to push your buttons, distract from the real issue, and then send the conversation down an entirely different path.

Welcome to the world of red herrings. A red herring is something that diverts attention from the issue at hand. In communication, a red herring is a phrase or comment that sounds meaningful and important, but it really just throws the listener off track and leads the conversation down another path.

If you’ve ever confronted someone about their behavior and they responded, “That’s just the way I am,” then you’ve encountered a red herring. Consider their response. What does it really mean? Does it mean that the person is predisposed or genetically wired to always do something a certain way? The truth is that people can change if they truly want to, and often they just don’t want to — but it doesn’t sound good to admit that. So, they respond with what sounds like a real excuse. But of course, it is really just a red herring.

Here are three ways to handle a red herring:

1. Ignore it and focus on the issue at hand.

If someone says, “It’s just the way I am. I am always late.” You reply, “Okay. Are you going to get the report to me on time by three this afternoon?” Don’t allow yourself to get pulled down a dead-end road by a red herring. Notice that there was no response to the comment, “It’s just the way I am. I am always late.” There is no need to comment. The issue is the report. Re-focus the conversation to resolve the issue at hand. Repeat yourself if necessary. This technique is especially useful when people say things that they think will get your goat. Just ignore their comments and focus on the objective of the conversation.

2. Question it using the Columbo Method.

You could say something like, “I’m confused. You said you would get the report to me by 3 p.m. Are you going to give it to me on time?” By acknowledging that you are confused, you are acknowledging that their red herring comment does not have to do with the issue at hand. This also allows you to restate the original question.

3. Use the million-dollar test.

Ask the person, “If I were able to give you a million dollars to give me the report on time, would you give it to me on time?” The person would likely say, “Well, yes, but you don’t have a million dollars.” Your response would be, “Exactly. You could give me the report on time if you really wanted to. So what’s it going to take so that I can count on this report coming in on time?” In other words, it is a question of desire and commitment — not a question of ability. The truth is that most people can change just about anything if they are really willing to. The question is: Are they willing?

No one can throw you off track unless you allow him or her to do so. It is up to you to take control of the issues and refocus conversations. You can make it happen and get the results you want by not falling for the red herrings.

Take Action
Pass this tip on to people you care about; your co-workers, your boss, your employees, your family and friends. Use it as a basis to talk to the people around your office, in your organization, and your personal life. Consider if you have encountered any of these red herrings in your work or personal life so you can put a stop to them and get the results you desire. If you get stuck, send me an email or contact my office for help at 703 241 7796.


By Steven Gaffney

When it comes to dealing with problems or issues with others, we are likely to believe one or more myths of communication–ideas that are touted as solutions, but that can actually result in more problems.

Myth #1: Time heals all wounds. The truth is, that time usually deepens wounds. If time really healed all wounds, people would not blame their behavior on their childhood and past events as they often do. In fact, time can deceive us into thinking that problems with others have been resolved, but all it takes is to see them again or something to remind us of those previous unresolved issues and we will become upset all over again. In essence, our unresolved past is lying around waiting to strike us in the present.

What to do? Do not rationalize by thinking, “Well, they are not saying or bringing it up, so I will just let it go.” Just because they are not bringing it up does not mean that they have let it go. They may feel awkward or embarrassed or they may not know how to bring it up so they have decided to bury it. The key is to proactively bring up issues and resolve them.

Myth #2: Don’t rock the boat. The truth is, if you don’t rock the boat, the boat will probably sink. Faced with an issue or problem that is bothering us, many people rationalize, “I am not going to say anything. It is not that big of a deal. I don’t want to rock the boat.” The problem with this way of thinking is if we don’t say anything, the issue is unlikely to be resolved. Then what was once a small issue may fester and grow into a big problem.

What to do? As stated above, proactively bring up issues as they happen.

Myth #3: Be diplomatic. The truth is, if we are too diplomatic, the point we are trying to make will not get across and nothing will get resolved. Have you ever had someone claim that they told you something, but you really don’t remember or didn’t understand the message they were trying to send? This happened because the message being conveyed to you was so subtle that you missed the point.

What to do? When we have to communicate an issue, bringing it up in a respectful way is important, but make sure the issue and what you want done is clear and direct.

Myth #4: Sandwich what you really want to say between two compliments. The truth is, the “sandwich method” is so obvious that people immediately identify the strategy and feel manipulated. The sandwich method is when you place what you really want to say between two positive compliments. “I appreciate how hard you work, but blah, blah, blah… and thank you for working with me on this.” This communication trick can permanently damage relationships.

What to do? Tell people the truth. People are smart, but we are lousy actors, so be honest and clear. If you have issues, talk about them and get right to the point. When you have something nice to say, bring it up in a conversation unrelated to the problem so you can get the most benefit out of the conversation.

Myth #5: More communication leads to resolution. The truth is, simply having more communication can lead to wasting time and possibly more misunderstandings. Sometimes it is believed that the more people talk about something, that easier the message will emerge from the sheer volume of information. But how often have you been in a meeting where people “talked about things” and nothing got resolved.

Consider this:
if the solution were simply to increase communication, wouldn’t you expect that the increase in e-mail, cell phone use, and video conferencing would have significantly reduced communication problems? In spite of all of these extra tools now accessible to us, it seems that there are more misunderstandings, mistakes, and conflicts than ever before. And people still complain that they don’t receive the feedback they need to do their jobs properly.

In fact, communication technologies can also help people spread misinformation with blazing speed, sometimes leading to devastating results. Communication technology is not inherently bad. However, the way people use it is often ineffective. Increasing the amount of communication through multiple channels is not the answer.

What to do? Instead of just increasing the amount of communication, make sure that people know how to effectively use the different methods to communicate. These methods can make the critical difference in successfully resolving issues as they arise.

Take Action

Pass this tip on to people you care about; your co-workers, your boss, your employees, your family and friends. Use it as a basis to talk to the people around your office, in your organization, and your personal life. Have an upfront conversation about the “myths of communication” and assess what everyone is willing to do differently. This way everyone will benefit from the knowledge and wisdom we all have to contribute. If you get stuck, send me an email or contact my office for help at 703 241 7796.


By Steven Gaffney

First, we must really understand that our assumptions, opinions, and conclusions are exactly that…OUR assumptions, opinions and conclusion. They stem from our own thoughts and beliefs and they may be wrong. Often we confuse our opinions with facts. Have you ever had someone wrongly assume something about you, and treated it as if it was a fact?

The first key is to understand that OUR assumptions, opinions, and conclusions are not always accurate. Sometimes they are, but we must always remain open to the possibility that they are not.

The second key is to “check” our assumptions, opinions, and conclusions. In other words, investigate them. Investigation opens the lines of communication and encourages honest feedback. This allows for the added benefit of helping to prevent false assumptions, opinions, and conclusions about you and minimizes the possibility of costly confusion. Lastly, it encourages everyone to make decisions based on facts

Here are five questions you can ask to get feedback that will help you “check” your assumptions, opinions and conclusions:

1. In my mind, I am thinking ________. Is that correct?
2. What is your ideal outcome for this project?
3. Is this what you wanted?
4. On a scale of 1 to 10, how well are we doing? What would make it a 10?
5. How could we work more effectively with each other?

Remember, questions are the key, and whether you use these specific questions or, a variation of them, use them frequently to “check in” and clarify. By basing your decisions on facts, you will make your job easier and more enjoyable and will create the work environment you desire and deserve.

Third, offer your opinions and conclusions with the true belief you might be wrong. But the key is you must believe it. If you just pretend that you may be wrong, while in your heart you know you are right, it will not work. For example, can’t you tell when someone is mad at you even though they say they are not? Or how about when someone says, “I am not blaming you” even though they are. This is because most of us are lousy actors and people see right though this charade. This is why some people, who only learn to say the right words, often come across as insincere. It is because they haven’t changed what they truly believe.

As proven in my communication seminar, “The Fish Isn’t Sick…The Water’s Dirty”, we are often wrong about our assumptions, opinions and conclusions. Sometimes it just doesn’t look that way because once we have an opinion we tend to look for evidence that is consistent with our opinion. We see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe. For example, once we label someone as difficult to deal with, that is all we can see. If they compliment us, we assume that they must be up to something. This is why many people who are labeled as a bad performer or difficult to deal with find it very hard to change people’s opinions.

Have you ever had someone rightly accuse you of something, but because of his or her tone, you denied it? When we are open to the possibility that we may be wrong, we see things differently that we otherwise may have missed. We say things differently. We frame the conversation from an entirely different perspective. After all, even when what we think is actually correct, people will be more accepting when we say it with the sincere belief that we might be wrong.

Consider this: with whom would you rather work? Someone who thinks they are right all the time or someone who is sincerely open to the possibility that they may be wrong. Most of us don’t like being around people who are self-righteous—even if they have a point. Instead, we like to be around people who are open to the possibility that they may be wrong.

The fourth key: to effectively conveying assumptions, opinions, and conclusions that are difficult to say, is to suggest one thing that could have been done differently. The more responsibility taken for things that could have been done differently, the less it sends a message of blame. Additionally, taking responsibility will most likely encourage the other person to think of things he or she could have done as well. And not blaming allows the other person to have an opportunity to consider the point differently… without feeling the need to get defensive.

So here is how it might sound:
“I notice the report came in at 5:00 rather than 3:00. I have all kinds of ideas going on in my head about this. For example, I am thinking that you have too much on your plate. Bottom line is that I am stressed. One thing I could have done differently is bring this up when it first happened and not immediately placed the blame on you.”

It is a lot easier to come up with a solution when there is not a need to come up with an excuse. This simple strategy will save you lots of time and aggravation and help you to get the results you desire.

Good Luck and let me know if you get stuck in conveying these difficult opinions, assumptions, and conclusions. I will help you. Just contact my office at 703 241 7796 or email me at If you find this article helpful, please feel free to share with others in your work and home life.

National Honesty Day: April 26 Honest Communication Tip

National Honesty Day is a great reminder to tell the truth, but it also forces us to confront the ugly truth about how honest others are being with us.

National Honesty Day arrives April 30, bringing with it a healthy reminder to examine your current level of honesty. The holiday was created so the month would end with focus on honesty after beginning by encouraging lies and deceit (April Fools’ Day). The holiday challenges people to evaluate just how honest they are. Be aware, though … you may be surprised by your findings.

A survey of 1,000 adults reported in James Patterson and Peter Kim’s book “The Day America Told the Truth” found that 91 percent lie routinely. I like to joke that perhaps the other 9 percent lied when surveyed. This percentage may be surprising to some, but consider your definition of “lying.”

Lying is not just about making false statements. It also encompasses everything that is conveniently left out, avoided or withheld. In my nearly 20 years experience advising top government leaders and Fortune 500 executives on increasing the bottom line through open, honest communication, I have seen the mounting costs of such withholding.

Open, honest communication is often the antidote to the hidden costly problems that inhibit organizations’ teamwork, collaboration, innovation and growth. This National Honesty Day, try it out. Discover the opportunities honest communication brings in both your professional and personal life.

Why limit honesty to just one day, though? If you are feeling really brave, try honesty out for the whole week. In honor of National Honesty Day, I will reveal one honest communication tip each day to help everyone get the “unsaid” said. Implementing the tactics I provide will improve the results of your honesty evaluation on April 30. The honest communication tips will be posted to my Facebook page and this Communication Blog. Please feel free to comment and let me know what results you see by using the tips!

Honest Communication Tip for April 26:
Abide by the Law of Reflection

The Law of Reflection states that what we give out is what we tend to get back. You may also know this law as the Golden Rule, or by the phrases “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “What goes around comes around.”

We have all heard these phrases in various forms and often recite them ourselves, but what strikes me is how easy it is to forget the powerful role this philosophy plays in honest communication.

Just think about it. How often have you experienced someone who does not listen to you or is not fully honest with you? In the spirit of National Honesty Day, be truly honest with yourself. Have there been times when you did not listen to that person or when you failed to openly share with them? As leaders, parents, colleagues and friends, we must model the behavior we seek.

When people blame us, we tend to blame them; when people accuse us, we tend to accuse them right back; when people withhold information from us, we tend to keep information from them. It also tends to hold true in the positive direction. When people take responsibility for their actions, we tend to take responsibility for ours; when people apologize, we tend to apologize back; when people focus on the solution; we tend to do the same.

Abiding by the Law of Reflection motivates you to be honest with others and compels others to be more honest with you. Be honest in acknowledging your mistakes, communicating your concerns and expressing your appreciation. Doing so will encourage others to do the same. Take that a step further and really listen to people if you want people to listen to you. Listen, no matter who are speaking with.

As National Honesty Day quickly approaches, abiding by the Law of Reflection is one way to increase your level of honesty.

This article is the property of the Steven Gaffney Company. Please e-mail or call 703-241-7796 for permission to reprint this article in any format. Copyright 2011,