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How To Train Yourself To Take Feedback Well

Receiving feedback is hard. Here are some tips on how you can be better at it.

How To Train Yourself To Take Feedback Well
[Photo: Flickr user jun j]

This piece originally appeared on Shine, a free daily motivational text, and is reprinted with permission. 

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With all the “be your best self now!” hullabaloo, we can get overwhelmed with what we think we should be doing. We can drive ourselves crazy thinking about all the things we could do to make ourselves smarter, stronger, better. Not long ago, I actually found myself surrounded by whiteboards sketching out all of my self-improvement plans for the year, kanban board style.

And while goals and growth plans are great, sometimes the best ideas for change come from an awareness outside of ourselves. I know, it sounds weird to hear a leadership coach telling you to look for something outside of yourself. I’m all about tuning into that courageous and all-knowing voice who can tout your fabulousness–it’s good stuff. But let’s get real: Sometimes the only way to get perspective about what needs to change comes from an outside perspective. Yes, believe it or not, there is often a gap between who we desire and think we are presenting to the world, and the way others see us.

Turns out that when you ask the people around you–the ones who see you in action every day and are impacted by the choices you make–where you can grow, their ideas might be a little different than your own.

Back to my kanban board planning: I decided to seek out some input. I asked some of my trusted advisers where they thought I could improve in 2018. My husband suggested that I take some interest in our house projects. My close friend noted that I had seemed a little distant in her time of need. And one of my business partners felt like he wasn’t getting information in a timely fashion. Reflecting on their feedback, I noticed that all three of these suggested areas of growth were missing from my own plans.


Related: This Is How To Use Negative Feedback To Be More Successful


Once revealed, these gaps came with a responsibility and motivation to make a change. It is these resolutions–the ones that come from a new awareness–that we tend to actually stick with. I want to be a better wife, friend, and partner, and I know change in these areas will be meaningful to the people I care about the most. I’m so grateful for the feedback they gave me–but, let’s be honest, it wasn’t easy to hear.

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The “Gift” Of Feedback

We all like to know how we’re doing; we want to grow and improve. But when the moment comes, when it’s time for our annual review, when our friend wants to tell us how it is, we cringe and prepare for the worst.

Receiving feedback is hard. Sometimes the feedback is just plain wrong. Other times it’s not timed well or is delivered poorly. Or it’s given by someone who doesn’t have the right to be offering it. Even great feedback–given by the right person, at the right time, delivered with specificity, kindness, and support–can leave us feeling demotivated and underappreciated.

The truth is, we can’t always control the feedback we receive; we can only control how we choose to accept and use it. And learning how to use it wisely can be a game changer.

As Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen write in their book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, feedback makes “our relationships richer, our self-esteem more secure, and of course, we learn–we get better at things and feel good about that.” And research shows that employees who seek feedback have higher performance ratings, and in general, report higher levels of job satisfaction. Outside of work, people who are open to feedback are easier to live with and be around.

So how do we deal with this tension? How can we open ourselves up to the feedback we need to learn and improve, and at the same time, how can we protect ourselves and maintain the love and acceptance for who we are? Here’s how to open yourself up to feedback.


Related: Your Feedback Will Always Be Biased, But Here’s What To Do About It 

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1. Solicit The Feedback You Want From The People You Respect

Sure, we get feedback all the time from people we don’t want to hear it from. We’ll talk about how to deal with that in a minute. But you can also seek out feedback that is more desirable and a bit easier to hear. Often the people who have the best feedback for us–the kind that you want and will actually help you grow–don’t offer it up as freely.

Often the people who have the best feedback for us–the kind that you want and will actually help you grow–don’t offer it up as freely.

You know that close friend who is always there for you and can make you laugh on the worst of days? It turns out that your tardiness has been driving her nuts. How about your colleague who you respect and keeps you sane when your boss is in full-on micromanage mode? He cringes every time you say “like” during a presentation, but he doesn’t tell you because he’s protecting your feelings.

If only you knew! This type of feedback–from the people you trust and respect–could have a huge impact on your personal and professional growth. But unless you solicit it, you’ll never know.

Try having a go-to question. At work, you might ask: “What’s one thing I can do to make your life easier?” With friends, you might try, “What’s one thing I can do to better support you as a friend?”

Also know that the person on the other side might not be prepared or fully understand your purpose. Make sure you explain why you want the feedback, that you genuinely want it, and then give him or her time to think about it.

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Related: How To Take Feedback From A Manager You Can’t Stand 


2. Notice Your Triggers

Think back to the last time you got difficult feedback. Did your stomach clench up? Maybe you felt your face turn red. Perhaps you immediately shifted into I’m-getting-fired mode. The physical and emotional reactions we have to even the notion of feedback are telling.

These reactions are the result of one of three triggers:

●︎ Truth: We feel that the feedback is unhelpful or incorrect (“That’s just plain wrong.”)

●︎ Relationships: We believe that the person giving the feedback is not in a proper position to do so (“Who is she to tell me what to do?”)

●︎ Identity: We feel underminded and that what we hold most true about ourselves is under attack (“Is he saying that I’m a bad person?”)

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The good news is that noticing your reaction and categorizing it into one of these triggers actually helps you receive the feedback. It provides you with a sorting mechanism that allows you to more powerfully decide what you want to accept and what you’ll let go of.

3. Stop, Collaborate, And Listen

It’s so natural to jump into defensive mode when getting feedback, particularly when it takes you off guard. But as soon as you start defending, you’re not hearing what’s being said. Remember, feedback is hard to give, and your giver may not be so awesome at it. Instead of focusing on their delivery or even the words being said, look for what they’re trying to tell you.

Ask questions, articulate what you’re hearing, and be curious. Try saying, “What I hear you saying is that I can come off as aggressive in the meeting. Is that right?” Ask yourself, “What’s the message this other person wants me to hear?” That’s where the gold lives.

Remember that listening, asking questions, and being curious does not mean that you agree. Showing empathy for a drastically different perspective is not acquiescing. Rather, you are taking steps to understand someone’s point of view so that you can choose whether or not to accept it.

4. Find The Nugget of Truth

A few years ago, a collenemy gave me some harsh feedback. She accused me of treating the people who worked for me like “peasants” and said that I didn’t listen to other people’s ideas. I felt my face get hot and I lost it. She hit all three triggers. The feedback simply wasn’t true, of all people she was certainly not the person to be telling it to me, and it was an attack on all that I valued. I not so politely told her what she could do with her feedback and kicked her out of my office.

Of course, I now see the irony. I didn’t even hear her out and I certainly wasn’t treating her respectfully. Reflecting on this conversation, I still think she had it wrong (mostly), but the nugget was that I wasn’t treating those outside of my team with the same level of regard, namely her.

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You certainly don’t have to agree with feedback, but there’s almost always at least some truth in there. Sometimes you may have to dig, but it’s worth it to put in the effort.

5. Take Action And Credit

There’s nothing worse than mustering up the courage to give someone feedback, only to see it go nowhere.

Once you find the truth (or truths), don’t sit on it. Figure out exactly how you can put it into practice. Make a point of showing up early for the friend bothered by your tardiness. I made sure the next time I was in a meeting with my collenemy, I asked questions and actively listened to her ideas.

Some feedback may take longer to integrate, and it might not be as visible. For example, training yourself to stop saying “like” may take time. Do something small in the interim to let the colleague know you are working on it. Make sure the other person knows you heard the feedback and are taking it to heart.


Related: Here’s When You Should (And Shouldn’t) Ignore Other People’s Feedback


6. Reflect To Deepen Your Learning

Feedback ain’t easy. As you focus on accepting and welcoming it into your life, make sure you leave time to reflect on who you are and what you’re learning. This is the time to connect back with your inner leader, to integrate what you’re hearing, and stay grounded in the fullest expression of yourself.

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You may want to keep a feedback journal and note what you were told and what you took away from it. Shine’s Mindful Moments are another great way to find the space to reflect and deepen what you are learning about yourself and your ability to accept feedback.

What you’re uncovering along your feedback journey will help you make better choices, and ultimately, make you more aware, competent, and resourceful. By getting feedback on what you’re doing, accepting it, and putting it into practice, you are creating sustained and effective change. Not a bad thing to be working toward.


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