Yes, feedback hurts

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Management

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.

Sixty-one ums!

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.