“If you don’t know what you need to do to be a better [boss, parent, spouse …], do you know who does know? Everyone else.”
– Doug Stone and Sheila Heen, Thanks for the Feedback: the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well
Feedback from others is critical to growth and development. Yet most organizations’ talent development efforts focus on only half of the equation; they train the “givers” but not the “receivers.” While giving feedback well is important, the receivers are the real drivers when it comes to learning from and acting on feedback. And many of us are not good at it.
Why is it difficult to receive feedback? And how can we get better at it?
Here are a few obstacles that authors, professors and consultants Stone and Heen describe, along with tips for improving this skill:
- The challenge to “see.”
Too often we dismiss feedback before we really understand it. Maybe it’s delivered to us in a poor or confusing way. Or we find something wrong or inaccurate in the feedback, so we toss out all of it – even if it contains a valuable nugget of truth.
To see what we need to see in feedback (even if we don’t agree with some or all of it) we need to listen actively, non-defensively and objectively – before we evaluate it. This is easier said than done. If emotions are strong, we may need to pause and take a deep breath. And it takes practice to open up the feedback conversation instead of shutting it down:
- “Can you say that again in a different way? I want to make sure I understand.”
- “Do you mind giving me a specific example or suggestion so I can make sure I get what you mean?”
- “Let me make sure I hear what you’re saying. You’re saying _____?”
- The challenge of “we.”
Another potential obstacle is the relationship we have with the person giving the feedback. If I don’t trust, respect or like this person, or if I don’t feel appreciated, I may write off what they say.
Ironically, it is often the people who are the most difficult for us (and different from us) who have the feedback we need the most. We need to remember to separate the message from how we feel about the messenger.
- The challenge of “me.”
Sometimes, feedback may feel like a personal attack on me or how I see myself. So I reject it, rather than face the difficult emotions involved in seriously considering it.
One tip is to notice strong emotional reactions to feedback and to be aware of whatever identity threat might have been triggered. Another tip is to focus on the message and the behaviors in question instead of focusing on the threat to my image or identity.
Self-awareness about which of these challenges or obstacles may be getting in our way is key to managing through them and receiving feedback well.
Here’s a final tip to those of us proactively seeking feedback:
Ask for specific suggestions.
Asking general questions like “Do you have any feedback for me?” doesn’t usually elicit candid or helpful answers. Instead, try asking more specifically “What’s one suggestion you have for me that would help me do better at ________?”
See Marshall Goldsmith’s Feed Forward exercise for further practical and helpful ways to focus the conversation on future suggestions for improvement rather than evaluating and debating what happened in the past.
No pain, no gain.
As Stone and Keen observe, feedback sits at the intersection of two basic human needs: the desire to grow and develop and the desire to be accepted and loved for who we are right now.
We can become more effective and resilient in receiving the feedback we need to grow. We must ask for specific suggestions for how to improve, really listen and consider what we hear, and learn to understand and manage the pain that comes with growth.
For more insights and tips on this topic, check out:
- How to Use Others’ Feedback to Learn and Grow, TEDx Talk by Sheila Heen
- Thanks for the Feedback: the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Book by Doug Stone and Sheila Heen
- Feed Forward, Article by Marshall Goldsmith
- Do You Really Want Honest Feedback? Article by Joe Baker
Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. In his work as a leadership consultant and executive coach, he often helps leaders get the feedback they need for greater growth, better performance and positive impact. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.