Better responses to delayed feedback?
March 20, 2020 1:25 AM   Subscribe

I don't cope very well with delayed feedback. I would like to get better at managing these conversations. Self-isolation is a pretty good moment to explore.

This is what I mean by delayed feedback:

"hi frumiousb, I want to give you feedback.

In the past, I have said I thought Y, but now I realise I actually think Z. Z has now changed my perception of you and I'm now upset about something which happened 6 months ago. I now know you did this thing because of your basic Z nature."

Specific examples are often deep in the past, or factually incorrect. (You didn't pay me back for your half of the vacation!) At that point, I generally say "But I did pay for the vacation! Here's the receipt." And at that point they say "See! This is what I meant about Z! There's no talking to you because you always think you're right!"

I end up frustrated and upset because I feel:

Angry because I'm being judged now on apparently new criteria for what happened in the past.

Frustrated because part of this seems to involve inaccuracies , and often implied intention on my part which is not what I felt. I think they get to tell me how I made them feel, but not how I felt. (Does that make sense?)

Vulnerable and hurt because I've apparently been acting in a way which upsets someone for an extended period of time without knowing. I have a feeling of betrayal.

I recognise this as an outcome of a long string of issues which haven't been highlighted before. But I find it baffling how to steer this kind of conversation back to anything productive.

I generally acknowledge their feelings, but explain I have a different perception. This doesn't generally help. If I'm not careful, I find myself picking at the specific examples and I know this is not the point.

I am a hard-core Ask person, and this situation generally happens with people who are extremely conflict avoidant. And I can seem to find no good response which satisfies either party.

Assume these are people with whom I would like to continue to interact. I have had no general issue (beyond occasional 'ouch' reactions) for feedback in the moment.
posted by frumiousb to Human Relations (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think all of your responses are natural. However, you are not their mental model of you! You didn't have the intent, you paid for the vacation, you had different intentions than they think, etc. No new revelation is going to change any of that.

Correcting someone on something as personal as their emotional reaction to past events (actual or imagined) is a conflict that they might not deal with well. They'll still be upset about the past, and newly upset about being told they should feel differently.

A possible response: "Thank you for letting me know! Please, tell me immediately if something I do makes you feel that way again."

I've dealt with this mostly in a professional, not personal, context. I make it clear to my manager pretty quickly that I need feedback as soon as possible, or it's going to be less useful to me. I've also found that "Radical Candor" to be a nice packaging of the concept for those who like to read business books or watch TED talks.
posted by Anonymous Function at 3:38 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]

Try to keep track who is doing this. If there is a pattern that is extremely relevant to managing it. If there is really only two people in your life who do this that means something about your individual relationships with them.

For a relationship to get to this point there are some boundary and communication issues going on. One possibility is that you are overriding their communication because you are an Ask person and they have been trying to get you to look over the receipts with them for six months without you understanding this was their agenda. If you are at fault in this you have been in denial about them trying to talk to you and defensively not picking up on what even an Ask person would consider obvious requests.

However, from the way you describe the scenario, I think what might be happening is related to emotional labour. Your complainants have been building up a head of negative emotion and then burst. This is more on them, then you. While you definitely would be a better and more effective person if you could pick up on their distress sooner, that doesn't imply that you need to manage their emotions for them. It actually means the opposite. There are some people who have trouble with emotional regulation and this is a pattern they follow. Everything is totally wonderful until it isn't and at that point it never was wonderful and the problem is you. They are also big on feeling you owe them the assistance to feel better and using every social skill they have to try to get you to help them.

The way I see it your challenge here is to figure out what is causing these delayed strong reactions. In your example they were not mollified by the facts, "Oh, wow, I thought I had paid for that but it was you all along, sorry!" but are still pressing their suit for damages. You need to figure out how accurate your version of the truth is compared to theirs without going over it with them. In the case of the receipt sit down and figure out everything that was spent and what would have been fair if you had agreed to split everything fifty fifty. Were there more receipts? Did the situation involve more than just the money commitment? You have to do this without input to them because they are already upset and while they are upset the communication has broken down and is about feelings not just facts.

You may find that there are one or two people who are having trouble regulating their emotions in your life and they honestly believe that you are harming them because of this. This is not to say that you are not harming them - for example when you have a relationship with someone who is much more into you than you are into them, this kind of harm to the other can happen, but if you don't realise the difference in commitment and need you end up taking advantage of them, so the only kind thing to do is to break up with them when you find out because you can't keep up. This can be business relationships, not just the romantic partner relationships, for example when a salesperson is offering you deep discounts in hopes of getting you to sign a contract for increased sales when you can't and won't ever increase your sales. But in both cases you have to notice what is going on instead of saying "How nice they are!" and if you are ethical back off before they hurt themself.

So one thing to examine carefully is what the implied promises were. Did they believe things you were unaware of and didn't commit to. If you paid for the x but they also expected you to install it and provide on-going support, did you give them that impression or allow them to gain that impression without correcting them or did they come up with that idea all on their own?

Look for conversations in the past where you said something like, "I'll see you in a week," and they said, "Oh but we need to get together on Wednesday to do this some more." If conversations like that occurred that is a sign that there was a mismatch in expectations of what was supposed to happen between you and is a red flag for much future unhappiness. Have there been many discussions about adjusting plans and expectations in the past?

Then the problem going forward is management. You have two things to manage. Your emotions around this, and the communication. You don't have to manage their emotions. You do want to acknowledge them and let them know you feel bad that this has happened and you want to make sure it doesn't happen again. Beyond that you can't really take effective responsibility and will probably only dig yourself and them deeper if you try.

Boundaries are key to preventing this happening. As an Ask person you are good at boundaries. If you state clearly, "I will not do this," Guess people understand that. It's much harder for a Guess person to make a strong statement, but it doesn't mean they don't understand them. It's people who have boundary problems who don't understand clear statements.

So work on establishing clear communication and boundaries with people. Watch for when you say something factual. "I do not want to do that," and they argue back with emotions, "Oh, but we would have so much fun if we do!" That's a clear sign of boundary pushing, where they are refusing to accept that you understand and know your own wants. They are demonstrating that they believe that their feelings are more important than yours and that you secretly feel the same way.

Then let it go. You didn't set them up on purpose. You can protect people and yourself best continuing to assert yourself clearly so they don't misinterpret you and can't come back later telling you something else was agreed upon. Work on communication and asserting yourself and when you feel bad, use that as incentive to keep communication and asserting yourself clearly in future. Watch out for agreeing to things they want that you don't want just to keep the peace or because you are feeling so happy and connected right now when that is not the usual level of enthusiasm you feel. Watch out for things expanding. This is part of the whole issue of consent. For many people "I like you," implies a promise and privileges, when it doesn't.

But don't get embroiled in the long reproachful conversations where you are defending yourself. They can't hear it because they are arguing from feelings. Let's say you paid for the tickets for a trip and they paid for the hotel, and now they are upset because they did a whole lot of research so they feel you should also have paid for the restaurants, and should have carried the bags. Discussing who and what and how much after the fact is a waste of air. Agree with them on everything you can. "You put in a lot of effort." "You couldn't handle carrying all the bags when I brought the car around." Do not accept any shoulds. It's too late for shoulds. What (maybe!) should have happened didn't and probably isn't going to happen next time either because your the other person and you are demonstrably bad at meeting each other's expectations. If you guys come back from a trip with them upset it doesn't matter what you do or how you communicate, chances are you should not be taking trips with them.

Them: "You don't love me because you didn't make sure I was okay about the payment arrangement."

Wrong answer: "I did pay for my share!" Irrelevant, they are talking about how they feel not who paid for what or what the arrangement was. Even if you paid for 90% of everything they will continue to feel bad and telling them about facts instead of providing emotional support will make them feel you still owe them more.

Correct answer: "I am sorry we mis-communicated. Tell me what you understood, how what we did didn't match what you understood, and what you want now to feel better." Listen closely and consider that you may have taken advantage of them and the way to not feel bad about that is to make it fair again.

Follow up: "Here is extra money to cover additional expenses so you feel better because you are important to me. However we are not going on trips together again unless we have a clear agreement in writing because I will only make the same mistake and make you feel bad.


Correct answer: I am sorry you feel bad and I am sorry what I did made you feel bad. I hope you feel better because I don't want to hurt you. However we are not going on trips again because I will only make the same mistake and make you feel bad.


Correct answer: I am sorry you feel bad. I also now feel really bad. We should never have gone on the trip because I am the wrong person to meet your needs. It's not you. It's me. Have a good life."

Secret internal dialogue: "OMG, hot mess, run a mile, block them on media asap."

Notice that in all three cases you work on boundaries to protect both of you and do not try to defend yourself because they are not listening and cannot listen so you are defending yourself to the wrong person. Your emotional needs in none of these scenarios is met, you are not listened to and you need to go do some self care and support your own emotional needs.

Manage your own emotions by knowing that you just took the moral high road and did everything reasonable to help them manage their emotions and that you will not in future be doing things that will allow for miscommunication. Then comfort yourself because the person you have a relationship with is not looking after your emotional needs and is not good at understanding your communication, so do nice self affirming things for yourself outside of the relationship, and journal to help yourself understand and either confirm that your defense is coherent and valid or help you find ways to change if you feel you were in the wrong.

Be aware that some people will likely feel that you are the bad guy in this no matter what you do and say, and the more they feel this, the more you have to distance. Watch out for if your sins change and their expectations change or their complaints are nebulous:

"You neglected me!" versus "You promised to pay on March fifth and have not paid yet,"


"You promised to help me but it didn't work and I still need help!" versus "You promised to meet me at the library and you stood me up,"


"You are my girlfriend and you are supposed to be emotionally available and I need you again tonight because of what my boss said upset me," versus "Can you listen to me again tonight because I am upset again?"

If the parameters of their expectations change, then they are bottomless pit so far as you are concerned. If they had clear expectations that you agreed to meet and did not meet them, then it's on you and you need to up your game, and work on your listening and emotional labour skills and make sure you are not making commitments you won't keep.

The fact that you are discussing delayed feedback is a red flag and that is the main reason I think this is an issue more about them than about you. Feedback should only ever be delayed until someone who is upset or can't do it right now is in a position to hear it and no longer. A day, or as soon as they are back in town is about as long as delayed feedback should go and then only with sensible adults. Delayed feedback does not work as a training tool with anyone, and moreover is dishonest because it is allowing someone to do something unacceptable over a period of time and not correcting them before they have done wrong. You don't keep providing opportunities for people to make mistakes without speaking up. It's like putting the garbage can in the middle of the kitchen and then getting angry at the dog for tearing it apart while you were out of the room, even though you knew that was what the dog was probably going to do. It's absurd to expect the dog to read your mind and curb its behaviour when you should have either not left the room while the garbage was out, or put it somewhere the dog couldn't reach it. It is abuse to punish the dog. It's not on the dog, and it's not on the person receiving the delayed feedback. It's on the person who doesn't want garbage all over the room.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:52 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]

"Thank you for letting me know! Please, tell me immediately if something I do makes you feel that way again."

Yes, exactly. Someone who is giving you feedback on something that happened six months ago is someone who needs to understand that while, hey, they feel how they feel, this is not normative and there is no way to really process these sorts of things together. They are Having Feelings about a thing that you have already put into the past. You can, appropriately, give them sympathy for their feelings without reopening the case of what happened. Jane the Brown has good strategies and a good way of looking at it.

And, honestly, it really matters if this is a person who you are definitely with for life (a spouse, a family member, a colleague at a longtime job) or someone who you can make choices about spending time with. Because I know you would like to continue a relationship with this person, but it can sometimes help you frame these interactions better if you have at least the option of pulling back for a spell. So like

Them: "Hey I'm upset and want to relitigate the vacation we took in 2019"
You: "Is there something we can discuss that can change things with us moving forward, or doyou just want to listen and feel heard?"

Because look, if you owe someone money, that is a different thing than whether you did your fair share of work on a vacation. It's okay to say "I don't owe you money," that's math. It's less okay to say "I feel I did my fair share of the work, therefore your feelings are wrong" because they're feelings. And it is worth thinking what it is about you and this person (or people) that mean that they take you to task on old shit and, similarly, that you somehow feel it's your problem.

Because for me, in my longtime relationship (with someone I obviously want to be with) sometimes he'll bring up some "You're always doing this and I've been upset about it for months" and part of how we work that out is talking about how if he'd brought it up months ago we would have been able to work it out or talk through it but with him stewing for months, I'm not responsible for his months of unease thinking about it, that's kind of on him. WHich is, of course, not how you talk about it in the moment, but it's good to give yourself some you-time and remember that these patterns take two people to fully complete and think how you might be able to be the person to snap out of the bad pattern.
posted by jessamyn at 8:05 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I would second Jane the Brown's question about whether there is a specific person or small subset of people who keep doing this, because it's a very strange and specific pattern of communication. That will make it a lot easier to mentally label in the moment, so your internal monologue can be something like: "Oh, there goes my brother doing the thing again where he suddenly gets mad at me for something he thinks happened six months ago. I'm going to remember that this is my family's bad communication pattern and that's why I'm feeling bad."

From the examples you described, I also think this person is trying to make you feel bad. They're mad at you, and then they find out the reason they're mad at you is based on a false assumption, but they want to feel justified in being mad and they want the release of seeing you admit to a wrong, so they just move the goalposts until they land on a seemingly-valid thing to be mad about.

You have this rando's permission to feel frustrated and upset. You can tell yourself "the thing I'm feeling now is frustrated and upset because this bad pattern I hate happened" and let yourself experience the feelings. It's okay.
posted by capricorn at 9:08 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]

I generally agree with the analyses above (and instantly thought, "I wonder if this is two or three specific people always doing this"), but I did want to touch on this briefly:

Vulnerable and hurt because I've apparently been acting in a way which upsets someone for an extended period of time without knowing. I have a feeling of betrayal.

This is a lousy thing to find out; it always makes me feel terrible. But if it's true--if, say, you've been insulting Aunt Sally for months with your flippant talk about her religious beliefs that you thought were just jokes but really hurt her feelings--then you are not the hurt one here, you are not being betrayed. You hurt someone (whether or not they communicated about that in the ideal manner) and you need to take that on board and not project and deflect. Yes, sometimes someone is being manipulative in this scenario, but I think many people actually will do this from time to time.
posted by praemunire at 10:12 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the answers. Yes, this has happened with 4 specific people over the course of my life, who have all been in a position where I could not distance myself. Once with a good friend (with whom I am no longer friends) and once with my ex-husband.

praemunire, you raise a really good point. I was thinking about micro aggressions too. I can be really very direct and it doesn't sit well with everyone. So I have to think about that further.
posted by frumiousb at 9:05 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

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