I had to take a dose of my own medicine recently.
I tell my coaching clients that critical feedback is a gift, an opportunity for growth, insight into a potential blindspot.
Yeah, whatever. It also feels like a kick to the stomach.
I recently gave a talk on confidence and “impostor syndrome,” topics that come up frequently in my coaching practice. As part of the presentation, I told personal stories to illustrate what impostor syndrome looks like and how to self-coach for confidence.
Afterward, as I was quietly nursing a vulnerability hangover, as Brene Brown says, I received an email from one the participants. She wrote to tell me that she had counted the number of times I said “um” while I was presenting.
I had presented and answered questions for an hour, so I must have um-ed about once a minute. She suggested I go to Toastmasters.
The criticism hurt. Like a kick to the stomach.
“That’s pretty rude,” my 12-year-old daughter said, after reading the email.
I agreed, but it was valid feedback. Empirical, even. I was saying “um” involuntarily, and it was detracting from what the emailer said was a powerful message.
And yet, my initial reaction was defensiveness and anger, not the gratitude and self-reflection I so sagely coach my clients toward.
I wanted to lash out. I drafted pointed and arch responses in my head. Maybe something about managing her pet peeves?
Fortunately, I didn’t send them.
“Maybe I can’t take criticism,” I said to myself. “Maybe I can’t walk my talk.”
I did research on “ums.” According to Noah Zandan, the CEO of Quantified Communications, the optimum frequency of filler words like “um” in a conversational presentation is, um, about one per minute. (Interestingly, the average speaker uses a filler word every 12 seconds.)
Over the course of a couple of days, my anger receded. I became aware of a new emotion: empathy.
This emailer is very young. She is enthusiastic about what she knows about public speaking and wanted to let me know what she knew.
I can empathize with that. I’ve been young, too. With experience, she’ll learn how to give critical feedback effectively (hint: ask for permission first) and kindly.
I looked up a nearby Toastmaster club — of course it would be helpful to my speaking career. Even better, it might be fun.
First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.