Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Handle a Personal Judgment

Dear Crucial Skills,

My manager recently told me that another leader said this about me: “her nationality shows by her bluntness in meetings.” I was told this as feedback but wasn’t given any specific examples. While I am open to constructive feedback and want to improve, I’m very hurt by this comment. This is particularly hurtful because I work for an organization that prides itself on being diverse and inclusive. I also ask myself: What would the feedback be if I were of a different nationality? Or if I were male? Or what would I hear if I were a director or a VP rather than a manager? How do I respond to this feedback? Right now, I feel hurt. I welcome your insight.

Feeling Judged

Dear Judged,

It’s always difficult to receive feedback—especially if the feedback feels biased and discriminatory. I can understand why you feel hurt and frustrated. While you point out that this feedback is vague, it’s also extremely specific. The critic disparages a part of your identity, implying there is something wrong with who you are. It is hurtful. It also sounds like you’re struggling to let go.

I’m going to assume you’ve had enough social interactions to know that people will not always be respectful and kind. Sometimes people will be callous, inconsiderate, and rude. Not everyone will like you, and you won’t necessarily like everyone else. For example, after some challenging interactions with colleagues years ago, I realized I won’t be close friends with every coworker. We don’t have to hang out on the weekends or meet up for lunch. Ultimately, it’s unproductive to demand more of workplace relationships than they can reasonably offer. In some cases, the best you can do is be cordial and respectful and leave it at that.

In other words, sometimes the best course of action is to let go and move on. But I have the sense you simply can’t brush off this rude comment. At the core, you feel disrespected. You also feel the comment betrays the values of your organization. So, it’s probably time to hold a Crucial Conversation or two about this interaction.

It’s important to speak up when you feel hurt or resentful because what you don’t talk out, you will act out. Your resentment may show up as backbiting, gossip, silence, disengagement, distrust, and more. I’ll assume these behaviors do not represent how you’d like to show up at work, so start talking before resentment takes over.

I recommend you hold the following Crucial Conversations.

Talk with Yourself

We agree the comment about your nationality was uncalled for and disrespectful, but let’s set that aside for now. You say you are open to feedback, so take time to really examine whether the criticism has any merit. Do you tend to be blunt?

Just because a perspective is delivered poorly or is hard to hear doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. I encourage you to reflect on your interactions and examine whether you tend to shut others down. While it would have been helpful to receive specific examples, perhaps you can think of interactions where being overly direct hindered dialogue.

Is there room for improvement? Could you be more receptive? Are there times when withholding your opinion might generate better dialogue? I don’t know the answers, but I encourage you to hold this Crucial Conversation with yourself and use this as an opportunity for growth. You can find more ideas in my recent article, “When Feedback Feels Abusive.”

Talk with the Messenger

Next, address the hypocrisy you perceived when the manager passed along the feedback. Ask if they would be willing to discuss the feedback. During this conversation, stick to the facts and use the contrasting skill.

Start by letting your manager know what you don’t intend. For example, “I don’t intend to ignore feedback that would help me be a better teammate. I’ve spent some time reflecting, and I can see that I tend to be blunt. I think I have room for improvement and will work to change this behavior.”

Then articulate what you do intend. “And, as I’ve reflected on this feedback you shared, I’m having a hard time reconciling it with the values we say we care about here.”

Then factually describe what happened. “You told me that a colleague said my nationality shows by my bluntness in meetings. While I can appreciate the feedback, the fact that it was tied to my nationality feels hurtful, disrespectful, and unnecessary. It especially feels uncalled for when we say that, as an organization, we pride ourselves on being inclusive. Speaking negatively about one’s nationality does not feel inclusive. To be honest, it feels discriminatory. And when you, as a leader, don’t shut that down but rather pass it on, it seems to condone bias rather than inclusivity. How do you see it?”

Then wait for the manager to respond. If the manager is not open to the discussion, dismissive, or even disrespectful in return, your next Crucial Conversation may need to be with another leader or HR.

If the Crucial Conversation with the manager progresses, ask them to identify the source of the feedback. Explain that it’s important to you to speak to the source because you’d like to repair the relationship. Also explain that you’d like some specific examples to help you as you process and apply the feedback.

Talk with the Source

Once you are aware of the source, ask that person for a few minutes to talk. Give them some context, then hold a Crucial Conversation similar to the one you held with the manager. Stick to the facts and contrast. Explain what you don’t intend and explain that you’d also like to talk about how the feedback was delivered.

Hopefully they’ll be open to your feedback. If they are, they will likely apologize, which I encourage you to accept. Ask for examples of how your bluntness has impacted the relationship so you can do things differently in the future. Be open to those examples and listen. Express your own apology and commitment to do better. Conclude by letting them know that if they have feedback for you in the future, you’d appreciate hearing it from them directly.

These aren’t easy Crucial Conversations, but if the feedback was as hurtful as you say, it’s important to speak up. Remember, what you don’t talk out, you’ll act out. And resentment grows larger and uglier as time goes on. I am also confident that your willingness to engage in dialogue will improve the culture of your team and organization—an important result for everyone.

Best of luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

12 thoughts on “How to Handle a Personal Judgment”

  1. Karen Kushner

    Great suggestions, Brittney.

    I would like to add that the questioner begin their conversation with the Source by asking if they had actually made that statement, as it was conveyed to you. It is possible that the manager who brought it to your intention misheard or misstated what was said.

  2. Randy Garner

    Great advice. However, I would not, in the initial conversation, invoke the statement that the feedback seems to be discriminatory. That creates a whole new level of concern. The same effect can be achieved without that.

  3. tdiym

    If only we all worked in organizations where all conversations were constructive and not defensive, these suggestions would work. I can’t personally see any manager who refuses to identify the source of a critical comment giving the person the name of the person who made the comment so that some kind of mutual understanding could be reached. Maybe it’s because I’ve never worked in that kind of environment, but open conversations are rare to nonexistent in my experience in the companies I’ve worked for and anyone trying to ask for more than what little was provided about a cutting remark will very unfortunately be labeled as the problem.

  4. Heidi Martinez

    I think you missed something here. There is an implicit assumption that being blunt is bad. Sometimes being blunt is necessary and powerful. I think your first bit of advice about the crucial conversation is on point – leading with what you aren’t trying to do, and your willingness to take fair criticism to heart. But I think the next statement – essentially, I’ll try not to be so blunt – is misplaced, unless in examining his/her own conduct the writer can identify areas where he/she made a mistake. If that isn’t apparent to the writer, I think the next step is to explore what was meant by that comment and whether the writer’s bluntness is perceived as a negative, a positive or a mixture of both. After all, each situation is different!

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      Thank you for your thoughts. Your point certainly crossed my mind – being blunt isn’t always bad. In many cases it indicates you are willing to speak up and that can be a powerful skill. Blunt can also be described as forthright, direct, and candid. And said that way, we’d feel like this person was an effective communicator. Unfortunately, I don’t know this reader and I don’t know her colleagues, my only advice is to not completely dismiss the feedback just because it was delivered in a difficult way. Maybe there is opportunity for growth there? If not, and the questioner feels confident in the way she interacts with others, then she can proceed with confidence. In general, looking at the role you might be playing in the situation is an important step to not entering the conversation on the defense. I think it also helps to disarm the other person who likely does feel like she has some room for improvement. Just something to consider.

      1. David

        Hi Brittney,

        When receiving feedback,
        how can you tell if someone is self-projecting?

        If they are self-projecting what is the best way to deal with this sort of feedback?

        1. Brittney Maxfield

          Hi David, thanks for taking the time to read. I guess the way I’d answer your question is that it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps the person is self-projecting, but I think the goal (and challenge) is to look at any feedback as an opportunity for growth. Even if someone is criticizing something in you that they see or feel about themselves, it doesn’t mean the feedback is invalid. I’d worry less about how the feedback is delivered, and more about what you can do with it. Take the opportunity to reflect and see if you can improve. If you think the feedback is completely off base, then get curious. Ask for some specific facts and examples. If the other person can’t come up with any, well, then, you can move forward confidently knowing that the other person is the one with the problem. For more ideas on accepting feedback, read my previous piece:

  5. Van Godbold

    Why is the original comment taken as rude or insulting? Aren’t “Feeling Judged”, and even Ms. Maxfield, falling into the fundamental attribution error? Isn’t it possible that the next thing that anonymous leader said was, “and I love that about her”, and that part got lost in the hearsay passing along of the feedback? I can attest, having worked with Germans and Taiwanese Chinese, to take two examples, that there is a very different level of what is considered blunt in professional interactions across cultures, so mentioning someone’s nationality is not prima facie evidence of a sin against inclusivity.

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      Thank you for taking the time to read my comments. It’s hard to get these scenarios completely right when you only have a few sentences to draw from. In my reading of the question, it seemed like the manager delivered the hearsay as a critique – rather than having defended her in the moment. It’s definitely possible I got it wrong, and your view could be another perspective. Another good tip to include would be to come into the conversation with curiosity and openness to what really happened. That would help draw out the truth of what really occurred.

  6. Vicky

    I appreciate that this reply uses all of the Crucial Conversation skills in a constructive way. However, it is easy for those of us who are Caucasian to have a “just speak up” mindset, not having faced systemic racism our entire lives. The first, unspoken rule of Crucial Conversations is that you have to feel safe enough to believe you can start one.
    Although I’m clear on the model, and we work on ourselves first, I will admit I felt a little stung that the comment was agreed to be “uncalled for and disrespectful, but let’s set that aside…” and the answer turn to ‘maybe you are too blunt.’. What “Feeling Judged” heard was disrespectful, hypocritical to the stated values of the organization, and as they point out, potentially from a place of multiple biases–not just ethnicity, but also possibly gender, status, and hierarchy. Is focusing in immediately on whether “Feeling Judged” is blunt looking at the content instead of the relationship? Is the first step possibly the need to feel mutual respect before any feedback feels valid?

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      Thank you for your comments. You bring up some really valid points. I agree the comments were discriminatory – which is why I suggested confronting them directly. And like you said, an effective way to proceed is to look at any role you might be playing before jumping into the conversation. This helps to diffuse your own emotion and defensiveness as well as disarm others, making the conversation more productive. It would also be possible to simply confront the discrimination directly.

  7. kathy w.

    After reading the concern, the reply and the comments, I find that something about this situation still bothers me. For me, it is tied to organizational integrity and values.
    The organization professes to be inclusive and encourage diversity, yet this comment (if it was correctly conveyed to the manager by the third party), doesn’t reflect either concept.
    The flavor of original comment, while it might be helpful regarding the bluntness, isn’t congruent with those values and/or it wasn’t shared in a helpful manner; so in addition to having a conversation with myself as suggested by Brittany, I’d be asking myself if this is a place I really want to work.
    Our best working environments are ones where we can do our best work, show up authentically, be coached for growth in supportive ways and feel fulfilled at the end of the day. We all have different needs. If yours aren’t being fulfilled and your workplace doesn’t enrich you, it may be time for a change!

Leave a Reply