The art of receiving feedback

Whether negative or positive, the value of feedback lies in how it is received

Manager giving feedback to subordinate

Whether it’s from an acquaintance, boss, parent or spouse, feedback is a quintessential double-edged sword. While we may glow in the gilt of appreciation and praise, negative comments may trigger a flurry of fast and furious feelings that blunt our abilities to think cogently. However, without the impetus of negative feedback, we are unlikely to learn, grow or optimize our potential.

In their insightful book, Thanks for the Feedback, authors, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, argue that if we learn to receive feedback more graciously, we stand to benefit immensely. Of course, the feedback we receive may be unfair, biased, judgmental or plain wrong. But instead of reactively shutting out unflattering or disparaging feedback, we may glean nuggets that can aid us in our quest for self-improvement.

The art of receiving feedback

Like most messy things in life, feedback comes in various guises. While grades, performance appraisals, reviews and ratings are more formal, feedback may arrive as compliments, thank you notes, invitations or lack thereof, divorce papers or cold silence.

The reason Stone and Heen focus on feedback receivers as opposed to feedback givers is because the receivers ultimately decide what they do or don’t do with the feedback. No one, however powerful or authoritative, can shove feedback down you unless you are ready or willing to take it. If we want to better ourselves, we should be more open to receiving feedback from everyone, they recommend.

The manner in which we respond to feedback impacts our professional and personal selves. Explicitly asking for negative feedback is linked to better performance ratings at work. Likewise, marriages are more robust when partners are willing to be influenced by inputs from their partners. Fortunately, like most skills, our ability to respond to feedback can be honed.

Stone and Heen point out that feedback typically assumes one of three forms. While appreciation may be a form of thanks or praise, coaching provides tips on how to do something better. Evaluation, on the other hand, signifies where you stand relative to others.

But people—both, those giving and those receiving feedback—aren’t necessarily aware of these sub-types. And, often a mismatch between what the giver provides and what the receiver expects can create tension. Before dismissing feedback, the receiver needs to make a concerted effort to understand what the giver is trying to convey.

The authors posit that three types of triggers set off a cascade of emotions that impede our ability to assess feedback more objectively.

Three types of triggers

1. Truth trigger

A truth trigger concerns the content of the feedback, which you believe is neither true nor helpful. You typically feel irritated or affronted by these comments. To complicate matters, we all have blind spots or areas of weaknesses that we aren’t aware of. So, when we feel that the feedback we receive is outright wrong or inappropriate, it could well be that the giver is incorrect. But it could also be that the feedback maybe throwing a spotlight on our blind spots. Stone and Heen counsel us that even if 90% of the feedback may not be accurate, even 10% can give you pointers to improve yourself.

2. Relationship trigger

A relationship trigger, on the other hand, relates to the relationship between the giver and receiver. Any feedback by certain people can stir up a cauldron of negativity. How dare she even suggest that? Does he think I’m so dumb? But instead of getting enmeshed in these emotions, we should try to disassociate the feedback from both the giver and the concomitant feelings they arouse in us.

3. Identity trigger

An identity trigger occurs when feedback diminishes our sense of self. And, one of the best ways to fight this threat is to cultivate a “growth mindset,” a term coined by Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck. Instead of believing that our identities are set in stone, if we hold a more fluid concept, wherein our identities morph and grow over time, we are less likely to bristle when someone seems to suggest that we alter a core aspect of ourselves.

Choosing to accept or disregard feedback

If we want to grow into our best possible selves, feedback from others, including those we don’t usually like or get along with, can provide us with useful tips. Before disregarding unpleasant feedback offhandedly, it might be a good idea to try to understand how the other person perceives us and be open to experimenting with suggestions that we may otherwise habitually dismiss.

After parsing the feedback without being entangled by emotions, we can then disregard parts that we feel are incorrect or are not meeting our current needs. Ultimately, it is up to us to draw our boundaries by deciding what aspects of the feedback we wish to use or discard.

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