Receiving feedback well is very difficult because feedback can be threatening. With practice and a structured approach, though, it’s possible to become much better at it.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Getting Better at Feedback

When people say they want to get better at feedback, they are generally searching for a way to make their own lives easier. They want a way to deliver a tough message without emotional difficulty, and to have the message stick. They want an easy way to get someone else to work or behave in a different way, in a more effective way, or simply in a way that they find easier to manage. This is perfectly natural, but it’s a bit like searching for a magic pill. You might find one, you probably won’t.

In response to all of this, we say that before you can be genuinely good at giving feedback, you need to learn to receive it well.

Diagram showing that receiving feedback well should be learned before giving feedback well

We would even like to argue (based on nothing) that a person’s skill in delivering feedback is always capped at parity with their skill in receiving feedback. We won’t do that though.

Receiving Feedback Well

In her book, Thanks for the Feedback, Sheila Heen identified six things you can do to get better at receiving feedback. We like the things she covers. In part we like her approach because it includes some focus on personal development. We’ve added a further stage to it at the very beginning which brings the list up to seven. We’ve done this just because we like the concept of emotional intelligence and think it’s important.

The seven things you can to do help you be better at receiving feedback are…

1 – Develop Your Emotional Intelligence

The more understanding and control that you have of your own emotions, the more resilient you are and the more self aware you are. The more control and resilience you have, the less socially threatened you will be by difficult feedback.

By remaining calm throughout the feedback process, you’ll be able to assess it and make choices about it more rationally. You will also be better at putting the person providing feedback at ease, so that they are better at delivering their messages. Luckily, there are some things that you can do to improve your emotional intelligence.

2 – Learn How You React to Feedback

Observing, learning, being mindful of and reflecting on how you respond to feedback is an essential starting point.

Being aware of how you respond to feedback lets you spot when you are triggered and helps you manage your way through the process.

3 – Separate the Message from the Person

As people, we can’t help but view the messages we receive through the lens of our relationship with the person delivering the message. This is natural but it isn’t always helpful.

To be better at receiving feedback from people with whom you have a complicated relationship, try to take the feedback messages away and reflect on them separately, away from the person who provided them.

Remember, even people we don’t get on with or respect may speak the truth and have value to add, at least some of the time.

4 – Look for the Coaching in your Feedback

It’s very easy to see negativity and evaluation in the feedback you receive. This can trigger emotional responses and make it hard to hear any helpful messages you receive. This negative framing is both stressful and unhelpful.

Instead of adopting this negative mindset, try and frame the feedback you receive as coaching feedback, designed to help you develop. This isn’t easy, but being aware that this is your intention is the first step in making this a reality.

Once you can see and hear the coaching messages in the feedback you receive, it becomes easier to respond positively to feedback and to grow and develop.

5 – Understand Feedback Before Ccting

Feedback is often the product of complex views and opinions. Despite this it is often highly condensed and then delivered in simple language. Meaning is often lost along the way and, as recipients of feedback, we aren’t given the full story, which means we make assumptions and fill in the gaps ourselves.

As most people know, our assumptions aren’t always accurate. They’re influenced by our mind-talk and everything else that’s going on around us. Instead of relying on assumptions to understand what the feedback you receive actually means, spend time exploring the feedback you receive so you really understand it. Ask questions about it, ask for examples, ask for extra details and try to understand both the actions and the impacts associated with the feedback.

Remember, it’s only once you really understand feedback that you can make a decision about whether you should accept it or reject it.

6 – Be on the Front Foot Regarding Feedback

In many organizations formal feedback takes place on a monthly basis, with larger conversations happening quarterly and six-monthly.

These conversations cover a lot of feedback, often take place well after the events they refer to and are directed by the person providing the feedback. These factors all put the recipient of feedback on the back foot. The recipient isn’t in control of any of these factors. The combined effect of this is that it’s hard to listen to and absorb any helpful messages within the feedback.

To have a better chance of receiving feedback well, it’s worth trying to take some control of the situation. You can do this by trying to own your own feedback process. Ask others for feedback, schedule feedback sessions with your managers or other stakeholders and seek out timely and bite-size feedback. If you do this well, you’ll find it easier to identify, absorb and act on genuinely helpful feedback.

7 – Experiment

Experiment with your feedback before accepting it all.

You don’t have to accept all the feedback you receive. This is a really key point. Just because someone tells you something doesn’t mean they are right. Similarly, just because someone provides a solution, doesn’t mean that solution is right. Of course, you can’t assume that other people are wrong either.

To overcome some of this uncertainty, it’s important to experiment based on your feedback as opposed to acting on it wholeheartedly. It’s better to undertake small experiments that test the helpfulness of feedback before fully embracing it.

Learning More

Those of you who have spoken to us will know we have pretty strong views on feedback. We understand that receiving feedback well can be difficult and that feedback can feel like a social threat. We also know that receiving feedback can be triggering, causing our amygdala responses (fight or flight) to kick in. Given this, we think it’s good to focus on learning to receive feedback well before focusing on learning to give feedback well.

There are several posts in this site on various feedback tools and models which might be helpful. These include 360 degree feedback, the stop, start continue framework, The COIN model, the feedback review matrix and the CEDAR model. There are also some tools we think you should avoid, including the feedback sandwich.

Our podcast on feedback might also be helpful. You can listen to it below.

The World of Work Project View

Though receiving feedback is difficult, it’s possible to get better at it with practice. The approaches detailed in this post are all very helpful.

Overall, we think the guidance in this post is helpful and the techniques that Sheila refers to are useful. That said, we think that half the battle regarding feedback is simply not being too attached to it one way or another.

It’s great when people provide you with guidance that can help you develop and improve, but all too often the guidance you receive at work is poorly thought through and more likely to be opinion than objective.

To survive this, it’s important to develop your emotional intelligence and resilience so that you can graciously accept the feedback, leave the person who provided it feeling valued and get on with your life as best as possible.

This sounds cynical and it sort of is. But it’s also pragmatic. We, of course, believe that helpful feedback should be treated with respect and acted upon, we just don’t believe that much of it actually exists.

How We Help Organizations

We provide leadership development programmes and consulting services to clients around the world to help them become high performing organizations that are great places to work. We receive great feedback, build meaningful and lasting relationships and provide reduced cost services where price is a barrier. 

Learning more about who we are and what we do it easy: To hear from us, please join our mailing list. To ask about how we can help you or your organization, please contact us. To explore topics we care about, listen to our podcast. To attend a free seminar, please check out our eventbrite page.

We’re also considering creating a community for people interested in improving the world of work. If you’d like to be part of it, please contact us.


Sources and Feedback

Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2015). Thanks for the feedback. Portfolio Penguin.

We’re a small organization who know we make mistakes and want to improve them. Please contact us with any feedback you have on this post. We’ll usually reply within 72 hours.