Five Keys to Receiving Feedback

Decades of experience and training in the field of talent/human resources has provided me with innumerable books, articles and blogs about how to give feedback. I also have opportunities to share those resources with others who are tasked with the responsibility of being the “messenger” of evaluations, disciplinary actions, coaching and feedback sessions.

Fewer resources, it seems, are available on how to handle being on the receiving end of feedback. So have you ever thought about how we can improve our professional and personal relationships by improving the way we receive feedback from others?

Simon Sinek, leadership guru and author of Start With Why, implores us to “crave negative feedback.” I love this, but also know that it is not easy. Not only is it a challenge to ask for negative feedback, it’s even harder to hear it. How can we turn a potentially blood-pressure-raising experience into a step on our journey of becoming better tomorrow than we are today? Here are five ways to receive feedback that can help you pursue your full potential:

  1. Be Humble: The first step to receiving negative feedback is to humbly accept the fact that you, my friend, are not perfect – and neither am I! When you allow yourself to believe that the other person (boss, spouse, friend, coworker) has nothing to teach you, you immediately close the door on an opportunity to improve. Your defensive ego blocks out any negative evaluation of your behavior, knowledge or skill. The truth is, the least humble people are often the least self-confident. I’m not suggesting that you wallow in a pool of self-deprecation, but remain honest and open about the fact that you may have more to learn. I have a friend and professional colleague who is well into his 70’s and still working (because he wants to!) His catch phrase is “I’m a work in process.” I’ve heard him say it a hundred times, but it’s so true. We are all learning and changing and dealing with the ‘stuff’ life throws at us. Convey to others a sincere desire to hear their feedback about how their experience with you could be better.
  2. Ask Clarifying Questions: It’s become a rather cliché technique in active listening to repeat back what you have heard. I’m not exactly suggesting that. But ask questions that demonstrate you are listening. Suppose your boss says, “When you arrive late for meetings, it makes you appear less professional than I know you to be.” It might be helpful to say something like, “I sometimes struggle with getting to meetings because a call with a customer runs long and I don’t feel I can just leave. How have you dealt with that issue?” This demonstrates that you hear what is being said and are committed to making changes.
  3. Keep Emotions in Check: Hearing negative feedback can trigger emotional reactions ranging from anger to disappointment or sorrow. I’ve learned to remind myself when I begin to feel the emotion bubble up to first, breath. Then think. If we put the conversation in a thinking and learning context vs. a personal feelings context, we improve our ability to hear and apply what is being said. Years ago, my husband convinced me to join a co-ed softball team. I am not the athletic type; my husband was the athlete. I was only on the team so they had enough girls to qualify as “co-ed.” When he tried to coach me on how to swing the bat or how to correct my stance, I would be mad. Not just slightly irritated, but mad! When I thought about why, I realized it was because I was embarrassed. I thought I should have known those things. It wasn’t until I made an intentional decision to listen and think about what he was saying that I became a better ball player and contributed (albeit very little) to our team. I certainly had a lot more fun. You have to choose to believe that the person giving you feedback is doing so because they want you and the team to succeed. If you can do that, your emotions won’t block you from hearing the very thing that could improve your effectiveness.
  4. Avoid Extremes: This goes hand-in-hand with keeping your emotions in check; reacting in extreme ways is not helpful. I remember a performance-feedback session in which I expressed to an employee that it was inappropriate for him to say certain offensive words (violation of harassment policies) to his coworker. His reaction was, “Fine, I just won’t talk to anyone anymore.” Another time I told an employee that it was a problem that she had fallen asleep during three of our last five team meetings. She said, “Then I guess I should just decline afternoon meetings.” These seem like ridiculous examples, but they are true stories. This type of response does nothing for your career. Be reasonable, rational and respectful in your reactions.
  5. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others: One of the most common feedback deflection techniques I’ve seen is the “what about so-and-so” method. You know this one. Feedback: “You could improve your opportunities here by arriving to work consistently on time.” Response: “Well, Joe is always late and he never gets in trouble.” This response demonstrates that you’re more interested in avoiding accountability than you are in improving yourself. We’re not talking about the other person; we are talking about you. And the great news is that you are the one who gets to decide to step up. It’s your opportunity to succeed.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do when receiving feedback is to make the effort to change. If the feedback you have received is true and could improve your opportunities for success, what have you got to lose by trying? If you care about the job, the relationship, the opportunities in the future, it’s in your best interest to address the issue. It’s not about giving up control, it’s about taking control of those things you can change to become a better partner in your relationships at work and at home.