Do you recall the last time you consider yourself lucky?  Those right place at the right time moments when the right things fell into place and good fortune smiled upon you.  A few of those might have been coachable moments when the right person passed along the right observation at the right time that made you better.

Let’s label those moments Opportune Notes.  The dictionary definition defines “opportune” as well-chosen, particularly favorable or appropriate.  

In a recent seminar, Marc, a regional services sales representative, commented on the good fortune of good feedback:

 “In my old roles, I really benefited from hearing from my manager and direct reports on how I was doing and how to improve.  I really wanted to listen because I had a great boss who wanted me to grow.  And my employees often times pointed out things I was missing … plus I wanted to role model being open and coachable.”

The origins of the word “opportune” refer to sailing into a safe harbor. You know you are getting an Opportune Note if it has these three elements:

  • Caring – the feedback giver is trying to be helpful, has your best interests in mind, and lacks any hidden agenda.
  • Context – the feedback giver is credible, has observed your actions directly, knows the subject matter, and is someone your respect for their opinion.
  • Clarity – the feedback is clear, you understand it, know what it means and what you should do/not do in the future, and it’s specific and concrete.

An Uncertain Harbor

But often we mull over feedback that doesn’t quite feel like we’ve dropped anchor in a safe harbor and we are uncertain what it means and what to do.  Marc finds himself in such a place now:

The trouble is that I’m now in a new organization and while I value learning and getting better, but I really don’t have the same level of trusted relationships yet, especially with peers. I hesitate to reach out for feedback as I used to or I hear things and am uncertain about the feedback.”

We all face times when reflecting on feedback that doesn’t quite meet the Caring+Context+Carity standard:

  • Your relationship with the message-giver isn’t as solid or trusting; 
  • Their motives are unclear if they have your back or want to hold you back;  
  • You question their expertise or credibility in the quality of their observation;
  • The message is confusing in what it means or what to do about it.  

So how do you deal with uncertain feedback?  Should you dismiss it or embrace it? 

Trim the Sails

Our defense mechanism automatically kicks in with uncertain feedback and we too often dismiss the input or message giver outright. While it’s never a good idea to blindly acquiesce to everything we are told, we should pause and consider if we are misreading the situation.  To sort out if the message is Opportune or not, ask yourself:

  • Emotions aside and more objectively, what did I hear?
  • What personal filter, trigger, or bias may hinder me from seeing the value (overly skeptical, projecting ill-intent, etc.)?
  • How can I gain a fresh perspective on the message (give it a day, check with others, consider if there is something I’ve heard before, etc.)?

Explore for Hidden Treasure

Once you’ve gained a fresh perspective and moved into more of a learning mindset than a dismissive one, it’s time to navigate for any Opportune gold.  Sometimes there are nuggets of value in even the most uncertain feedback.  Ask yourself:

  • Does the message lay bare the truth about something more directly than I’ve heard before?
  • To be honest with myself, am I overestimating or underestimating my impact on others in this area?
  • Does this message point out a blind spot I need to address?

Sail Off or Drop Anchor, Don’t Drift

In a recent coaching session, a talented leader told me she had become shy about seeking feedback based on a faulty improvement message from her boss six months ago.  I told her she might have drifted from reflection to rumination and needed to decide.  Her choice was to reconnect with her manager to clarify the message or let it go.  We don’t need to blindly accept everyone’s opinion but we need to move on and not be dragged down with the ballast of the uncertain.

Marc decided to stop drifting and start building stronger coaching relationships in his new organization.  He identified a set of potential trusted advisors or truth-tellers and met with each of them.  In each encounter, he shared his interest in learning and offered specific areas for Opportune notes, such as how he was coming across in meetings and where he needed to drive change vs. respect organization norms.  His favorite questions became:

  • What should I be paying more attention to right now?
  • I’m uncertain about what I heard recently.  Before I dismiss it, is there anything I should consider to help me be more effective here?

He also began a 90-day practice of end-of-the-day journaling to capture what he noticed, was thinking, and heard from others.  Over time, he found himself sailing back into the learning mode he enjoyed in previous roles.  How can you join Marc in navigating uncertain feedback for good fortune?