The art of receiving feedback
Learning to listen to what others feel
In school, at work, in our private lives – everywhere we are reliant on getting feedback from our peers, colleagues and friends in order to learn how to get better at what we are doing. But despite being aware of how important it is, we often shy away ourselves when it’s on us to give good feedback to someone else. We either do it much too little or we wrap it up in cotton wool to be sure no feelings will ever possibly be scratched.
The reason for our reluctance is probably not lack of opinions or utter apathy. Apart from the effort that it needs to come up with good feedback, delivering it also entails some uncertainties that require courage and confidence to overcome: Will I manage to bring my point across? Am I even right with what I’m asserting? How will the other person react when they hear it? Will they be upset and start an argument? Or will they think of me as an arrogant smartypants? These and a hundred of other concerns can bother us when we consider to approach someone with feedback.
You are most likely well familiar with the situation in which, say, a co-worker speaks about someone else behind their back in a brutally honest way. Maybe you have wondered why your colleague doesn’t simply go to that other person to sort out the issue with them directly. Instead, they apparently prefer to keep things as they are and blow off their steam at someone else. While this behaviour is a whole other topic in itself, what you should really ask yourself here is how often the very same scenario occurs – just the other way around. Do you have a clue how often you are the subject of complaints, discontent and annoyance that never reach your ears? Can you guess the number of times someone else thinks you could have done something differently, but they won’t ever share it with you?
What is feedback?
To state that “giving feedback is hard” is only one side of the coin. Receiving feedback is an equally difficult skill and your ability to master it is directly proportional to the amount and quality of feedback that you will receive. But before we dive into that, we should clarify what feedback is to begin with.
The matter of feedback is primarily how we do something: the way we treated a friend the other day in a stressful situation; the method that we used to explain a complex topic in a presentation at work; or how we reacted when we were confronted with an uncomfortable decision. Feedback is never an objective assessment though, it’s rather fundamentally based on personal perception. In brief: feedback tells us what effect our behaviour and acting had on someone else.
No matter how hard we would try to phrase feedback generically, we could at most disguise that it always reflects our very own interpretation and eventually reveals something about ourselves. And herein lies a strong reason why we often feel uneasy about giving it to others: in doing so, we expose our feelings and make ourselves vulnerable. Keep this in mind by all means! In fact, this realisation is crucial for our very own behaviour as recipients of feedback.
How to deal with feedback
The “art of receiving feedback” is a skill that basically consists of three principles: listen, appreciate and consider. (And as simple as that sounds, as difficult it can be to put into practice.)
First an foremost, receiving feedback is all about listening – and that in the most empathetic way possible. Don’t object, don’t deny, don’t explain, don’t justify, don’t concede. Just listen. Your hackles might raise, so outrageously wrong the feedback can sound to you. Perhaps you come to the conclusion that everything was just an awfully unfortunate misunderstanding. Or maybe you notice that the other person was obviously missing some pivotal piece of information, and only this led to the misery in the first place. However: regardless of what actually happened (in your opinion!), you cannot change the run of events in hindsight, let alone influence how these events were perceived and interpreted by someone else. (Remember that feedback is all and only about this.) The protagonist of a feedback conversation is not you, it is the person who gives it.
The best possible reaction when receiving feedback is to show appreciation for the fact that it is given to you. A common misconception here is to confuse this with the approval of its content. However, it is no contradiction to show sincere gratitude for the feedback itself on the one hand, but to innerly dissent on the other without giving any indication about this whatsoever. In fact, being able to tell both things apart carefully is a hard-earned virtue that testifies a high level of personal maturity.
Thorough and candid listening is the biggest contributing factor to signal appreciation. By actively giving room to the other person, you allow them to develop and share their view, hence making them feel trusted and respected. A feedback conversation isn’t easy – but this holds true for both participants likewise. Just put yourself in the other persons shoes and bear in mind what inner hurdles they had to overcome to make the move and open up to you. All the more you should consider this (possibly rare) occasion to be valuable and precious, so you are well-advised to let the other person know about that.
By getting defensive, openly rejecting the feedback, or even starting an argument, you would at best come across as incorrigible, overbearing and egocentric. At worst though, this behaviour has the potential to destroy trust and credit in a hardly recoverable way. Once someone has learned that you fail to accept other peoples thoughts and perceptions, they might shut themselves off and never again be open and honest with you.
Processing feedback can be compared to buying clothes in a shopping mall. There are different things offered in various designs, colours and prices – some of which you like better, some of which you like less. In the end, it is entirely up to you what you buy. Whether you want to try out a new style or whether you stick to your old one; whether you take something “as is” or whether you have it tailored to your fit; whether you go on your own or whether you ask a friend to come along for advice. Point being is: you decide for yourself what you get out of the feedback (or not). And you can (and should) take all the necessary time to make up your mind about it.
While you generally don’t need to give account to anyone, it is very well possible to follow up on feedback if you consider it needful. For instance, you could apologise when you realise that you hurt someone’s feelings. Or you could take action when you came to the conclusion that a certain improvement would help to prevent something similar from happening again. In the latter case you should make sure to let the other person know, so that they can see the positive changes which their feedback had led to.
You cannot realistically expect other people to give feedback to you proactively. Most of the time, you will have to ask for it. The success of that depends on a lot of different aspects and therefore it is important to understand what facilitates honest feedback.
- Trust – This is the strongest enabler, albeit the most delicate one at the same time. Trust builds up gradually as relationships deepen over time and people experience that they can rely on each other. Eventually they feel respected and protected even when sharing uncomfortable or confrontative thoughts. Personal affection (or “good chemistry”) is often a vital building block for a trustful relationship.
- Superiority – This means that there is some sort of hierarchy in which the feedback giver is higher up than the receiver. The hierarchy can be set in roles explicitly, e.g. as manager and employee, but it can also stem from an obvious gradient, e.g. in age or experience. The relation between these two parties makes giving “downward” feedback easier because it usually coincides with certain behavioural expectations that such a hierarchy implicates.
- Anonymity – Comment sections on news websites are the best example that prove how anonymity correlates with frank (but sometimes also blatant) honesty. This effect can be utilised for the collection of feedback, especially when there is otherwise no trustful basis that would allow people to share their thoughts openly. (This can be an indication of severe cultural problems though, so be wary when making use of it.)
In an ideal world everyone would only give perfect feedback: constructive, concrete and thoughtful in content; carefully, diplomatically and appropriately delivered. Realistically though, a lot of feedback that we will receive – especially the critical one – isn’t just like that. It might instead be vague and hard to understand, and its effect can be disconcerting or even hurtful. Although there surely are boundaries of what is acceptable, it is still important to acknowledge that not everyone is a perfectly empathetic communicator. Even a rampant complaint has root causes that are worth to understand, so we shouldn’t reject it out of mere sensitivity.