I gave a speech last week on the importance of feedback to a high performance organization. It was clear that many of the audience members were uncomfortable with the thought of delivering corrective feedback. They asked great questions and slowly came to terms with how they would craft feedback to reduce the likelihood that it would cause defensiveness. That naturally led to the other side of the coin, “Do you have any tips on how to receive feedback?”
I was honest with the group. I value feedback tremendously. I just don’t like it. You probably don’t like it either. Corrective feedback hurts. Because it hurts, you either get emotional (argh, so awkward) or defensive (not great for your credibility). It’s worth giving some thought to how to receive feedback. A few tips can short-circuit an emotional reaction and increase the value you get from feedback.
Share Your Preferences
First, if you have preferences for how to receive feedback, you need to communicate those preferences to your boss or teammates before they have something to say. Once the person has descended on you, it’s too late to tell them what you want. As you’re getting to know your manager, let him know if you prefer to have a heads up about feedback in advance. If you get emotional, you might ask that your boss share feedback late in the day so you have time to think it over at night. Whatever your feedback preferences are, make them known.
The hardest part about receiving feedback is hearing the message objectively. That might be because you downplay (or, alternatively, catastrophize) the message. Alternatively, you might change how you hear the feedback based on who’s delivering it. That’s why you need to listen to exactly what the person is saying. Don’t paraphrase in your mind. If she says, “Your presentation was missing a couple of important sections,” don’t think to yourself, “She thinks my presentation sucked.” If you catch yourself doing this, stop and ask the person to repeat what they said.
Ask for Examples
If you get poor quality, vague feedback that leaves you flummoxed, ask for examples. Be sure to ask in a way that suggests you’re open to the idea, you just need to understand it better. In as calm a tone as possible, try saying, “I appreciate you giving me that feedback. Can you share an example so I can get a sense of where that has happened?” If the person can’t provide an example, ask them to let you know if the same thing happens again.
The most important part of receiving feedback is to turn it into a conversation, rather than promptly retreating. There are a few things to include in this discussion. First, thank the person for giving you the feedback. As hard as it might be for you to hear, it’s also hard to deliver an uncomfortable message and you should be grateful that the person was willing to do it. Second, share something, however small, about what the feedback means or what you’ll do with it. For example, “I’m disappointed to hear that my presentation didn’t hit the mark. I worked really hard on it. Next time, I’ll ask for more input before I start crafting a presentation. Finally, enlist their help, “May I ask you to help me with this? Would you be willing to sit down with me tomorrow and go over the presentation?” Converting feedback into a dialogue will go a long way to strengthening your relationship and securing your reputation as someone open to learning.
Ask for a Break
One of the audience members at the speech asked, “Can I ask for a break if I need it?” My response was, “I sure hope so.” If you’re receiving a piece of feedback that is landing particularly hard, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for some space. Ask as respectfully as possible by saying something such as, “I appreciate you saying this. It’s hitting me a bit hard. Can you give me a little while to think about it and I’ll talk to you again this afternoon?” If the person is giving you feedback to help you develop, she’ll be willing to do this.
Do I Have to Change?
One of my favorite questions last week was about your obligation to do anything with it. The answer is, “Of course not!” No matter how much feedback anyone gives you, you remain in control of your behavior. If you honestly think the feedback is off base, you can choose to do nothing with it. Clearly, that’s a risky choice. At the very least, take the opportunity to think differently and be more aware of the impact of your choices in the future.
Receiving feedback is absolutely essential to growth and the cornerstone of a high performance culture. It’s also about as fun as walking across hot coals. Use these tips to ensure that feedback doesn’t kill you, it only makes you stronger.