What I did when my brother called me self-centred: Or, a better way to deal with feedback

Last week, in one of our regular lockdown phone calls, my older brother Andrew called me self-centred.

Not in an angry, bitter or attacking way. Just casually, in passing. Like it was an afterthought at the end of his story about a trip to the supermarket, which had resulted in some good deals on mince.

At first I asked him to repeat what he had just said; surely I had misheard. Our phone connection must be poor. (DENIAL MODE).

Next, when I found out I had indeed heard right, I became deeply wounded.

“How could you even SAY that about me?” (BOTTOM LIP TREMBLING, VICTIM MODE)

Next, I quickly moved into indignation.

“I can’t believe you’re ACTUALLY saying that about me! Me? Self-centred?! I am the LEAST self-centred person I know!” (DENIAL MODE, again).

Finally, I moved into ATTACK MODE: “Now hang on a minute bro. You’re waaay more self-centred than me! What about the time you…?”

He was saved from this ongoing piteous performance by my husband sauntering into the room and laughingly agreeing with my brother that,

“Yes, you are just a teensy weensy bit… well… self-centred…” (Brave man).

“In an entirely adorable and innocuous way, of course!” (Wise man).

I took a deep breath and recalled what I’d learnt from the very savvy Harvard researcher, Tasha Eurich in her fantastic book on this subject, Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think. Eurich states,

 “…to figure out what is worth listening to, a good rule of thumb is to look at how pervasive a particular behaviour is. Feedback from one person is a perspective; feedback from two people is a pattern. Feedback from three or more people is likely to be as close to a fact as you can get.”

I decided I had better “lean in” and practice what I preach. Pull up my coach socks and adopt Eurich’s three-step approach, which I’ve slightly adapted. If I didn’t, my brother might like to add “hypocrite” and “bad leadership coach” to that so-called list of ‘Suzi’s failings that she denies’.

If you’re curious about what these three steps are that you should take (and that I didn’t) when you next receive feedback that stings, here they are.

  1. Receive – which involves active listening, checking your understanding of what you have heard, and thanking the person giving you this tough feedback.
  2. Reflect – which involves asking (gently, curiously, NOT like one of Redding’s interrogations from The Blacklist) to probe them further in order to increase your understanding – all the while, mirroring and paraphrasing back to them what you’re hearing.
  3. Respond – which involves taking time to integrate the feedback and then circling back to that person in some way.

I’m now actively studying these three steps again, along with googling “what does self-centred really mean?” So, let’s take a closer look at these three steps…

STEP 1: RECEIVE – Active listening, checking your understanding and thanking them.

Mastering feedback starts with listening well. This means showing the person giving you feedback that you’re hearing – without judgement – what you’re being told. Hard to do? Well, yes – just look at my own bumbling emotional response to my brother.

Active listening, although difficult when you’re hearing feedback that you have an issue with, has two vital benefits:

  1. By immersing yourself in practicing this important skill, it engages your analytical (thinking) brain with the need to deconstruct their communication. This creates distance from your amygdala (your emotional or reptilian brain) that may otherwise want to jump in and defend itself, Suzi style.
  2. You’re so busy engaging with what you’re hearing (Wondering: “What’s the key message I’m hearing? Is there any emotion here? How am I going to summarise this?”) that you don’t have time to think about a – possibly ill-judged – response.

The next part of this step is to repeat back what you think you’ve heard, regardless of whether you agree with it not. Harder to do than it might sound. How do you best do this? Summarise the key message(s) you’ve heard and reflect it (or them) back as concisely as possible, along with any emotional intensity (theirs, not yours).

Thank/recognise the giver

This part can actually precede the first bit, if you choose. If you want to encourage people to give you ‘difficult to hear, but important for you to know’ feedback about yourself – and as a leader, you should always be looking to do this –  it’s pretty important that you thank the person giving you the feedback.

That they plucked up the courage to give you challenging feedback takes nerve on their part. Doubly so, if you’re further up the food chain in the organisation.

Thank them irrespective of the content of the feedback, and whether you agree with it or not. Even if it’s delivered in a bumbling or unskilled manner, as it will be in many cases. If you don’t genuinely thank them, they’re unlikely to try again, which will cut off your access to this invaluable information.

Extra tip: Don’t correct them at this stage (Or ever actually; it’s their perception).

If the feedback-giver shared something you believe to be incorrect, now is not the time to point that out. Do that in a later interaction, or after some reflection. Or – much better yet – show them they are mistaken by your subsequent actions, which is undoubtedly more powerful than attempting to tell them they are mistaken.

STEP 2: REFLECT – Asking to probe and increase your understanding

At this point you might not know what they think you should do differently. You could be wondering what exactly it looks like if you’re NOT doing this, but doing something better in the future? If this is the case then – after you have genuinely thanked the person for their feedback – ask, “Would you be okay if I asked you a question or two about that?”

If you get the answer “No” to this question, this is very clear feedback in itself that you haven’t done the aspects of step one as effectively as you need to – in which case, circle back and start again.

Once they say, “Yes”, you can then ask whatever questions you need to improve your understanding or turn their perhaps lower quality feedback into higher quality, and more useful feedback.

Potential questions might include some or all of the following, which are handy to have at hand:

  • “When you said I was not being supportive of you, what specifically did I do, or not do, that caused you to feel that?”
  • “When have you seen me do this? What situations do you see me do this most often?”
  • “Can you give me a specific example, so I can better understand?”
  • “You mentioned x. Can you say more about that…?”
  • “Have you seen me do this in other situations?”
  • “What would you prefer I do in that situation?”
  • “Will you tell me more about _____?”
  • ”I’d like to check my understanding of your feedback. I heard you say ______. Is that accurate?
  • “What are one or two specific things you want me to do differently related to ______?”
  • “Help me understand…”
  • “Let me make sure I understand what you are saying…”

If you are overwhelmed, you could say: “I’m in overload right now. I wonder if we could take a break so I can digest what you’ve said. Can we circle back to this later this afternoon?”

Or even, “Thank you. I will take time to process your feedback and would like to continue this conversation at another time soon.”

STEP 3: RESPOND – Integrating the feedback and then circling back to the person in some way

Now you’ve got the feedback, you may be feeling a little fragile or defensive – that’s ok. It’s now time to reflect on it. At some point you will need to decide what you are going to do with the feedback; this is the most powerful part of the process.

Take the time to process the feelings that rose up as you received feedback. Here are some things to reflect on as you do:

What more do I need to learn and understand about the situation?

  • What do I know objectively?
  • What assumptions am I making?

What more do I need to learn and understand about the other people in the story?

  • What additional information do I need?
  • What further questions and clarifications might help?

What more do I need to learn and understand about myself?

  • What’s underneath my response?
  • What am I really feeling?
  • What part did I play?

Not too much later, but once you’re feeling back in balance, circle back and take action (if required).

You don’t have to act on every piece of feedback you ever get. In fact, definitely don’t do that. You might decide that this is who you are and you are ok with having this weakness. However, do consider what changes you might make as a result of the feedback you’ve received. For example, do you need to communicate in a new way to be more effective?

The epilogue to my little feedback-receiving debacle with my bro is that we’re all cool. I love and trust him more than most people on this earth. He tells me how he sees it and I value that immensely. I’m also thinking a lot about what he said, what steps I can take to better understand this feedback and become, well…a little less self-centered! And that’s enough for now…


  1. Rachel on May 1, 2020 at 8:39 pm

    Thanks for the article, Suzi. The section regarding getting 1 2 then 3 pieces of feedback, and that it is the 3rd time it is probably correct is really interesting. How we see ourselves is not always how others see us. It is not always negative though, we may be much better at something than we thought!

  2. Bev on May 1, 2020 at 9:26 am

    Great read Suzi! Love your posts. Keep them coming.

    All the best Bev

  3. Donna Wells on May 1, 2020 at 6:34 am

    This is gold, Suzi. It’s very well written and a lot to take in, with a touch of Suzi humour. What a great article. Thank you.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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