How to Listen to your Critics

Recently I took a short vacation at a well-known family resort. Before going, I had searched the Web looking for feedback about the hotel from other travelers who had been there.  Mostly I found a lot of complaints about ‘terrible service.’

To my surprise, virtually every person working at the resort was incredibly polite and professional – the check-in woman who got us a room right when we arrived, 4 hours before check-in (after a 4:30am wakeup that morning); the woman who mercifully got a load of laundry done on a Sunday; the guys renting the giant water tricycles…you get the idea.

More surprising still, the day I was leaving I rode up the elevator with two women, one of whom was in the middle of a rant to her friend.  “I’ve never, ever, been to a hotel with such unbelievably poor service!  Never, in all my years!!!”

Who do you think is more likely to run home and share their opinions on a travel discussion board?

The point is, we all know intellectually that the people who stand up and give feedback are, in general, those who represent the most extreme views.  They might be the angriest or the happiest, but they’re not average (and I do think people tend to speak up more when they’re unhappy).  Even knowing this, it’s very easy to feel like the best way to listen is to respond to the people who talk the loudest.

Another example: I recently held a meeting for a group of 10 people to ask for their feedback on a new program.  Over the course of the one-hour meeting, six people spoke freely, three made a few comments, and one person said nothing.  After the meeting, we sent a note to the participants and were very specific and very direct that we really wanted feedback and further thoughts.  Only then did the person who had been silent in the meeting write an incredibly thoughtful, two-page email in response.

There are two points here:

1. Listen to those who talk the loudest, and be honest with yourself in reflecting on the feedback you’re hearing.  If there’s a kernel of truth, that person is a “canary in a coal mine” – someone who is speaking up early and probably represents a silent majority.  But also be ready to hear the feedback, consider it, and discard it.  This too is a form of leadership.

2. Make sure you ask for feedback lots of times in lots of ways.  This is as much about creating a culture of feedback (within your organization and with your stakeholders) as it is about how you ask, being genuine when you ask, and asking a lot of times in lots of different ways.

To end, a quotation from the Buddha:

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it
or who has said it,
not even if I have said it,
unless it agrees with your own reason
and your own common sense.

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