We swim in an ocean of feedback – not just from bosses, colleagues and customers, but also unwanted comments from family, life partner, friends and in-laws. Essentially, feedback is crucial for personal and professional development.
At work, it improves performance, develops talent, aligns expectations, solves problems, guides promotion and pay, and boosts the bottom-line. However, we dread feedback and often dismiss it.
Negative and neutral comments can spark emotional reactions in the recipient and inject tension into the relationship between the giver and the receiver.
We might think that the person delivering the feedback has no credibility, or we might feel wronged and frustrated by the feedback. Also, we often hear “feedback” as apportioning blame rather than as a platform to grow and improve.
The good news is the skills needed to receive feedback well are learnable. They include being able to identify and manage the emotions triggered by the feedback and extract value from criticism even when it is poorly delivered.
Here are 6 steps to become a better receiver of feedback
Receiving feedback well is a process of sorting and filtering. You need to understand the other person’s point of view, try on ideas and experiment with different ways of doing things. In addition, you may also need to discard feedback that is genuinely misdirected.
The six steps that follow will help you discern whether to discard or accept feedback that comes your way (adapted from Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone).
#1. Know your tendencies
You have been getting feedback all your life, so you would know best how you respond to it.
Do you defend yourself with facts, argue about the method of delivery, or strike back? Do you smile on the outside but harbour anger on the inside? Do you get teary or filled with righteous indignation?
Do you tend to reject feedback in the moment and then step back and consider it over time? Do you accept it all immediately but later decide it is invalid? Do you agree with it intellectually but have trouble changing your behaviour?
By knowing your tendencies and what you are inclined to in your thinking, you would have a more objective evaluation of the feedback rather than skewing it to be bigger than what it is.
#2. Separate the ‘what’ from the ‘who’
If the feedback is on target, it should not matter who delivers it. However, often times it does.
When we receive feedback, our feelings about the giver surface naturally, resulting in us sometimes detracting from learning. To keep that from happening, you have to learn to separate the message from the messenger.
#3. Lean toward coaching
Everyone needs feedback that is evaluative and coaching. Evaluations tell you where you stand, what to expect, and what is expected of you. Coaching allows you to improve and helps you perform better.
It is not always easy to distinguish one from the other. When someone makes a suggestion, we sometimes doubt if it was intended as a helpful suggestion or veiled criticism. People tend to assume the worst and they end up placing well-intentioned coaching into the evaluation bin.
My advice is, whenever possible, lean toward coaching. Work to hear feedback as potentially valuable advice from a fresh perspective rather than as an indictment of how you have done things in the past.
When taking that approach, the suggestion becomes less emotionally loaded and you would be able to see it objectively as a simple suggestion for improvement.
#4. Unwrap the feedback
Often it is not immediately clear whether feedback is valid and useful. So before you decide to accept or reject it, conduct some analysis to understand it better.
Firstly, try to understand what the giver of the feedback really means. Even a simple advice to “be more assertive” can come from a complex set of observations and judgments. In this instance, you need to dig into the general suggestion and find out what in particular prompted the advice.
The second step is to understand where the feedback is going, i.e. exactly what the giver of the feedback wants you to do differently and why. When you set aside snap judgments and take time to explore where feedback is coming from and where it is going, you can enter into a rich, informative conversation about perceived best practices.
#5. Ask for just one thing
Find opportunities to get bite-size pieces of coaching from a variety of people throughout the year. Avoid vague, unfocused questions like “Do you have any feedback for me?”
Instead, make the process more manageable by asking a colleague, a boss, or a direct report, “What’s one thing you see me doing (or failing to do) that holds me back?” As such, that person may name the first behaviour that comes to mind or the most important one on his or her list regarding you.
Research has shown that those who proactively seek critical feedback tend to get higher performance ratings. It is so because someone who is asking for coaching is more likely to take what is said to heart and genuinely improve.
Moreover, soliciting constructive criticism communicates humility, respect, passion for excellence, and confidence, all in one go.
#6. Engage in small experiments
After you have worked to solicit and understand feedback, it may still be challenging to discern which bits of advice will help you and which ones would not.
Designing small experiments to find out may help. When someone gives you advice, put it to test. By taking someone’s advice for change, you may actually find better and more effective ways of doing things. If it does not work, you can opt to try again, tweak your approach, or decide to end the experiment.
Feedback is sometimes not easy to take. Even when you know it is vital for your development and you trust that the person delivering it wants you to succeed, it can activate certain psychological triggers. You might feel misjudged, misunderstood and sometimes threatened to your very core.
On the other hand, your growth depends on your ability to extract value from such feedback despite your natural responses. It also depends on your willingness to seek out more advice and coaching from bosses, peers, and subordinates.
They may be good or bad at providing it, but you are the most important deciding factor in your own personal and professional development. If you are determined to learn from whatever feedback you receive, no one can stop you.