How do you deal with managers or coworkers who clearly have a problem with your performance, but avoid speaking directly to you about the issue?

During my recent stay at a historic inn, I met TJ, an assistant to the chef. Soon after he lit the wood in the fire pit, I asked if he liked his job.

“Love the job, but I just put in my two weeks notice yesterday,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I’ve been working here for six years, and they still don’t treat me with the respect I deserve, considering all I know.”

Curious, I wondered what they had done that left TJ thinking they didn’t respect him.

“Oh… just last week our souse chef got sick, and they needed my help with brunch. I jumped in and started helping, even though I’ve never done that job before. As I was preparing plates to go out, I kept hearing the chef tell my colleagues what a terrible job I was doing.”

He went on to explain, “Instead of telling them what I was doing wrong, why not tell me – the one person who can change my behavior? If he would have just told me, I could have learned.”

What a great question. Why do people tell everyone else what a terrible job someone else is doing rather than confronting (and helping) him or her directly? Because it’s easier to complain than it is to have a difficult conversation and help someone grow. Besides, there’s too much at stake.

Giving difficult feedback opens the giver up to an array of annoying reactions or defenses. Depending on how TJ defended himself, the chef may have wound up feeling badly, angry, or irritated that he ever said anything. Giving feedback to highly sensitive, defensive people is frustrating at best and energy-sucking at worst.

If TJ wanted feedback, he could have asked for it directly, appreciated the chef (even if it was hard), and then make the necessary adjustments to show he’s listening.

Of course, some feedback simply does not resonate as true. In his book Success Principles, Jack Canfield says, “If one person says something about you, they might be off. But if you keep hearing the same thing, listen in.”

Naturally, we all want feedback couched in a palatable way, but not everyone is able to avoid hurting feelings. And if you find yourself defending against feedback, there might be some truth to it, so seek to understand what there is to learn.

3 simple steps to keep the feedback coming in:

  1. Be Honest — Difficult feedback can be hard to take. So, if you’re reacting, or wanting to defend yourself, simply ask for a few minutes to absorb their feedback.
  2. Say thank you — It does not matter if you appreciate the feedback they gave you. What matters is that you appreciate them for doing their best to help you see something you may not have seen without their support.
  3. Adjust — The best way to keep feedback coming in is to use it! If you respect the person who gave you feedback, demonstrate that you’re listening by adjusting your behavior.

Giving and receiving feedback is difficult even for the most highly trained among us. That said, the more you seek out—and receive—difficult feedback, the more sensitive you will be when giving it.

Join the conversation: Has anyone ever given you difficult feedback? How did you react?