The Challenge of Receiving Feedback

Feedback is merely other peoples’ opinions of our work. Yet, we struggle both to give it and to receive it. We should welcome it as there are few other ways to determine whether the work we did was good or needs improvement. We should be able to recognize the gift that someone gives us when they take the time to let us know how our work affected them, even if it’s not perfect.

In Thanks for the Feedback, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen take a fresh look at the subject of feedback. Their opinion is that, at least in the corporate world, we have had some coaching on giving feedback to members of our organizations. On the other hand, there is little or no coaching on how to receive feedback. Being a good receiver of feedback allows us to take fuller advantage of this important growth and improvement tool.  The book is training in how to receive feedback well.

Stone and Heen find that receiving feedback is difficult because it can trigger one of at least three kinds of reactions that block, or allow us to dismiss, feedback. The reaction categories are: truth, relationship, and identity. After defining these categories, they propose strategies for each type of reaction. Stone and Heen use the reaction categories to frame a discussion of the feedback conversation and show how the feedback receiver can act to improve the quality of that conversation as it is happening. I’ll summarize each category and the related strategies and conclude with a summary of the conversation best practices.

Three kinds of reactions to feedback

When we see the feedback as wrong, unfair, or unhelpful, it has triggered our truth reaction. In this case, our giver has likely confused the three purposes of good feedback, or omitted one of them: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. Givers often skip appreciation and combine the evaluation and coaching steps, or worse, start and end with coaching: “Next time do it this way.” A skillful coach/giver might say “Good effort on this play (appreciation). But you were in the wrong place; you should be over here (evaluation). Let’s talk about how to get to the right place (coaching).” Regardless, the worst thing we can do is let an unskilled delivery cause us to lose the value of the feedback. When we feel our truth reaction being triggered, we need to take a deep breath and get curious. Our giver saw or experienced something and is trying to relate it, not making things up to hurt us. We need to ask our giver to tell us what they liked about what we did, what what they didn’t like about what we did, and how they suggest we take advantage of the things we did right (from their perspective) while correcting the things we did wrong.

When we respond to feedback with discussion of our relationship with the giver (e.g. “You’re the problem, not me.” or “Who are you to say?” or “After all I’ve done for you…”), the feedback has triggered our relationship reaction. In this case, our giver likely has a deeper, relationship-based issue with what we’ve done and is giving us feedback on both our actions and how it has influenced the relationship. When we are tempted to give these kinds of responses, we need to do our best to separate the relationship from the feedback, without losing track of either. One way to do this is to get the feedback about our action off the table for a minute, perhaps by temporarily accepting it. Say something like, “I can see that you didn’t like my action and I’d like to hear more about that in a minute. For now, tell me how my action made you feel.” Once we understand that, at least to some degree, we can discuss how to do the action differently next time, possibly using the techniques in the previous paragraph.

When we internalize the feedback too much (e.g. “I screw up everything”, “I’m a bad person”), the feedback has triggered our identity reaction. This case is different in that it may not have been triggered by the manner in which the feedback was given. When we feel ourselves reacting in these ways, we need to look closely at why we are putting so much weight on the feedback. We may have been trained to receive feedback in a bad way; we may be “magnifying” the feedback out of proportion; or we may not have a growth mindset. Either way, we likely need to work on understanding that we always have opportunities to grow and get better, and that feedback is a valuable tool in our improvement. Further, we need to understand that our actions are not who we are, completely. Gifted people often make bad plays, so learn to see the feedback as an indication of an area in which you need further practice, more experience, or different tactics. If the feedback is especially damaging, we can ask for a delay before discussing it further.

Managing the feedback conversation

These ideas work together to show a set of tools to manage feedback conversations. First, know that we don’t have to actually do anything with the feedback. While there may be consequences of not changing the behavior or fixing the problem, no one can normally force us to accept feedback. Conversely, we cannot force our giver to change the way they give feedback. However, if we decide to accept the feedback, we can usually improve the quality of the conversation and get value from the giver.

Here’s how to have the conversation. The first step is to react calmly, without excuses or defensiveness. The second is to understand what the giver saw and understand the impact on them. The third, if appropriate, is to get advice on what they think we should have done instead. Finally, again if appropriate, get some free coaching; perhaps the giver has had a similar experience, or learned some lesson that may help us progress in our understanding. Remember that the giver would likely prefer that you accept their feedback, and it may be important to let them know you have. Strong relationships can be built in this way.

I’ll relate a personal story. For a few years now, my wife has been helping me by proofreading some of my writing. We now work well together as a team, but at first, we would get into heated discussions about some of her suggested edits. You can imagine how that went. We would get into a grammar argument and storm off to Google to prove who was right. Finally, and after I had read this book, we sat down and had a conversation. We decided that her comments were suggestions, not requirements. I was free to make the changes she suggested, or not. After all, it is my work, so I’m the decision maker. In addition, I didn’t have to explain the changes I didn’t want to make and she didn’t have to suggest a correction if she didn’t want to. She could simply say “this part doesn’t sound right.” This mindset change has extended out to other kinds of feedback and to writing feedback from other people. I’m not going to say that I now love negative feedback, but viewing it differently has helped me react more effectively.

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