Receiving feedback can be an uncomfortable experience for many reasons.
It is also critical to professional and personal growth. Being able to listen to, contextualize, and implement suggestions from others allows you to integrate different perspectives and skill sets into your work. This feedback loop can also help you identify areas for personal development, setting you up for long-term success.
Taking feedback well is crucial for effective collaboration within the workplace, as it ensures issues are dealt with quickly and harmoniously. People will also feel more comfortable making suggestions and proposing ideas when they know you will make an effort to listen to their ideas and value what they think.
But just how do you approach feedback with an open mind and make the most of what you learn?
Why We Find Receiving Feedback Difficult
If you find feedback an uncomfortable experience, you’re not alone: one study found that unprompted feedback raised people’s heart rates enough to suggest they were under moderate to severe duress. Different research suggests that more than 1 in 10 people have a severe fear of feedback.
There are many sound reasons why you might find feedback hard to take. A significant problem is that it’s very difficult not to take feedback personally. You might struggle to separate comments about work or performance from your sense of who you are as a person. When this is coupled with a negativity bias (where the brain places excessive weight on negative events or comments), it’s no wonder that even mild criticism can leave you feeling anxious or attacked.
Adjusting to a perspective other than your own can also be a challenge. You’ve likely spent a lot of time with the work that is now under scrutiny. Suddenly encountering new information based on someone else’s view can lead to cognitive dissonance. How you see the work is suddenly brought into conflict with how someone else sees it.
The prospect of being given feedback can also lead you to question the security of your position. Because we live in a culture where failure is often seen as something to be avoided, any situation where your shortcomings might come to light can feel fundamentally unsafe. You might also subconsciously interpret someone’s feedback as an attempt to take control of the idea.
Lastly, many people just aren’t very good at giving feedback. One survey found that a third of managers find giving negative feedback uncomfortable and that 20% even struggle when delivering praise. That can lead to the process itself being frustrating, prejudicing you against what they’re saying even if it’s useful.
All of these negative emotions can trigger our fight-or-flight response. Our brain responds as though we’re under threat and tries to protect us from that threat, either by going onto the defensive or by distancing us from it (ignoring it). We often look for a reason – any reason – to disregard what we’re hearing. One study found that people even actively avoided others who gave them discomforting feedback. On top of that, our resistance to feedback can build up over time, making even the best feedback go unnoticed.
Understanding why you might be resistant to feedback and being able to label these reactions as they occur is a powerful first step towards becoming more receptive to it.
Developing a Positive Attitude Toward Feedback
“Take criticism seriously, but not personally.” – Hillary Clinton
Altering your attitude toward feedback is a long-term process. Here are 3 quick strategies that you can use to begin to shift your mindset.
- Reappraise – Approach feedback as a learning experience and a chance to grow. This is a powerful example of cognitive reappraisal, where you relabel a negative experience. If you tell yourself that it’s an opportunity to develop, not to find out what you got wrong, it may be less daunting.
- Be Proactive – If feedback remains something that’s imposed on you by other people (particularly superiors), it’s likely to remain a traumatic experience. That’s why you should try to be more proactive about feedback by actively seeking it out. As inviting other people’s opinions becomes a natural part of your process, the idea of receiving feedback becomes normalized, and you’ll feel more in control.
- Be Objective – Introduce more objectivity into your process. Trying to view the work in a less biased way will enable you to anticipate the feedback you might receive as far as you can. It will also help prepare you for the feedback process by giving your brain a chance to adjust to the prospect of outside influences. A feedback checklist is one way to do this.
How to Respond to Feedback
How you respond to feedback in the moment is crucial. It impacts not only your working relationship with the person providing it but also your own attitude toward what you learn.
Firstly, take a breath and temper your initial reaction. If you start pushing back on points you disagree with immediately, you put yourself on the defensive and will be less receptive to the process as a result. Being reactive could also damage your working relationship with the person giving the feedback, as you might seem combative. If possible, give yourself time to process your emotions and plan your response.
You should also engage from a place of empathy. Try to remind yourself why the person giving the feedback is doing it: most likely, it’s because they want to make the work better, making them an ally, not an opponent.
Thinking about their perspective may also give you valuable insights into why they’re responding the way they are. Even if you disagree with something they said, focus on understanding why they said it. That will enable you to distinguish between an unwelcome but valid point and something which you can safely disregard.
Feedback shouldn’t be one-sided. While it’s important to let someone have their say, asking follow-up questions is invaluable. By asking questions and taking time to briefly summarize what you’ve understood, you encourage them to elaborate on their points. This also helps demonstrate that you’re actively engaged.
Lastly, make sure you thank someone for their feedback. Sometimes this can be really hard – especially if it left your ego feeling bruised. However, it ensures they feel valued and will encourage them to keep being honest and open with you.
Before starting to make changes, make sure you have some sort of personal review process in place to help you evaluate feedback. This not only helps you to see the big picture but also gives you breathing space, so you’re not making revisions based on an initial or emotional reaction.
While performing your review, make sure you highlight the positives, as well. This counteracts the natural inclination to focus on negatives over positives. Focusing on positive feedback, in addition to accepting constructive criticism or suggestions for improvement, can boost your confidence.
Evaluating both positive and negative feedback simultaneously means you won’t unintentionally dilute what people liked about the work.
Receiving Feedback Well
“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” – Bill Gates
Receiving feedback can be a positive experience when approached, received, and evaluated well.
By becoming more receptive to feedback, you can reap the full benefit of other people’s insights. You will also strengthen your working relationships with colleagues, making your collaborations far more effective.
Learning to respond effectively to feedback involves emotional awareness, empathy, and patience. It involves letting go of your ego. You also need to consider the person giving the feedback and ensure your behavior demonstrates that you’re open to what they’re saying.
Fortunately, taking feedback well is something you can get better at through practice. The more you actively seek out feedback, the more natural it will feel to receive it.