3 Ways to Take Feedback Better from Authors of ‘Thanks for the Feedback’

Feedback. It’s everywhere–from bosses, friends, teachers, husband and even our kids and Facebook. How do you take it? It’s a double-edged sword. We all want to improve our skills, but we also want to be liked and accepted.

This unique book addresses how to accept feedback gracefully whether your boss is giving you a review, your kids are commenting on their meatloaf dinner or your mother-in-law is offering snide commentary on your parenting style. Criticisms are among the most difficult conversations to have–but the new book, Thanks for the Feedback, aims to make it a little easier.

Now listen, sometimes the feedback you get is just plain crap.  Sometimes it’s callous or wrong. But sometimes it’s right. What do you say or think or do in response? The authors of Thanks for the Feedback try to give you a guide to make friends with your mistakes. They want you to know the difference between when you should let it roll off your back and when you should take it seriously and try to improve.

The authors, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project hit it out of the park with well-researched insight, advice and tips. I asked them some questions below–they explain what feedback is 3 Quick Ways to Take Feedback Better.

KK: What do you mean by feedback?
DS and SH:
We mean it both narrowly and broadly. Feedback is that performance evaluation or those test results, but in a bigger sense, this is a book about how to learn about ourselves from people and experiences – how to learn from life.

Feedback can be direct (“you missed your sales targets”) or indirect (when your boss said “good work, team,” she looked at your two colleagues, but not at you). And we’re constantly getting feedback in our personal lives as well – that comment from your mother-in-law about your permissive parenting, the way your spouse left this morning without saying the usual, “Love you.”  It can be from your boss or your boyfriend, your neighbor or your niece, even from your suddenly-too-tight jeans. We get feedback from everywhere, and not only from the outside. Let’s not forget the ways we beat ourselves up – the feedback we get from ourselves can be some of the hardest to take.

KK: What are 3 Quick Ways to Take Feedback Better?
DS and SH: Great question.  The research shows that people who seek out feedback – especially negative feedback that they can learn from – are perceived to be more competent, settle into new roles more quickly, and get higher performance reviews. So here are three tips that will help.

1. Don’t ask: “Do you have any feedback for me?” Too broad. Too daunting. Instead ask: “What’s one thing you see me doing – or failing to do – that’s getting in my own way?” That lets people know you actually want the feedback, and gives them permission to be honest.

2. Don’t just tap people you like and who like you – they can’t help you with your edges because they don’t see your edges. You live or work well and easily together. It’s the people we struggle to get along with who are often in a position to offer us something valuable about ourselves. They see our edges because they are so wonderfully adept at provoking them. Asking them about one thing you’re doing that’s getting in the way will not only elicit valuable insight into what you can do to reduce the friction, it will also be a bold step toward improving that relationship.

3. When you’re really struggling with feedback that seems fundamentally “off,” divide a sheet of paper into two columns and make two lists. On the left, list all the things that are wrong with the feedback. What they are saying isn’t true, it’s unfair, they’re one to talk, when they gave it was inappropriate, how they gave it was pathetically unskilled, why they gave it is suspect.  Now on the right make a list of things that might be right about the feedback. Too often we use all that is wrong with the feedback we get to cancel out the possibility that there is anything right about it. Your feedback might be 99 percent wrong, but that 1 percent that’s right might be just the insight you need. And once you get good at listening for what’s right, not just what’s wrong, you’ll do that in your conversations themselves more easily – getting curious about what they mean that might be helpful. That’s when you can really accelerate your own learning and improve your relationships.

KK: Much of the focus on feedback is how to give it. In your book, you say how you receive it us just as important.
DS and SH: 
We think that how we receive feedback is actually more important than how feedback is given. You can be the most skillful feedback giver on the planet, but at the end of the day, the receiver is in charge of what they let in, and how and whether they choose to change.

In addition to the crucial benefits of learning and growth, there are two other huge benefits to getting better at receiving feedback. First, the way you handle feedback has an enormous impact on your relationships. If you’re open to feedback at work, you send a message that you are a confident person who wants to improve.  In personal relationships, receiving feedback requires us to be vulnerable and letting others in to help us creates intimacy. Conversely, if we always keep feedback at bay, it’s a disaster. Those around us need a way to discuss how our behavior is impacting them, and if we close off that outlet, a corrosive tension begins to eat away at the relationship from the inside.

If you tend to be sensitive, there’s another benefit: Getting better at receiving feedback reduces stress and anxiety. When we get tough feedback and are feeling off balance or devastated, learning is the last thing on our minds. We’re just trying not to pass out. Improving how we manage feedback means improving how we deal with those times when we’re flooded or panicked or just sick with shame or self-doubt. We may still get knocked over on occasion, but we can learn to regain perspective and get to our feet more quickly. And this resilience helps us approach feedback conversations with less trepidation and more openness.

KK: Why is feedback so hard to receive?
DS and SH: At the heart of receiving feedback is a clash of two core human needs. We’re wired to enjoy learning and growing – it’s a big part of what brings satisfaction and accomplishment to life, why video and app games are so addictive, and why people play golf with such dedication (the occasional great game only the more cherished for its unpredictable scarcity).

But human beings also need to feel accepted, respected, and safe – just the way we are now. And that’s why feedback is such a conundrum. We can point to times that we’ve learned and grown from feedback in our own past, so we know we need it, and we (theoretically) want it. But it can be enormously threatening as well because the very fact of “constructive” feedback suggests that how we are now is not quite okay. It can be brutally painful to see ourselves the way others do; that’s true whether their perception is on target or terribly unfair.

So the goal of this book is to help people get better at receiving feedback at both the cognitive and emotional levels. We take humans beings as we really are, not the way a business or self-help guru might assume we are, or a boss or parent might wish us to be. It’s not a book for how to receive feedback if you didn’t have emotions, or if you didn’t find everything so threatening, or if you would just learn to be happy or open-minded. It’s how to receive feedback as the human being that you (we) actually are.

KK: In Thanks for the Feedback you talk about identifying triggers that affect how you receive criticism.  What are those triggers?
DS and SH: We could all list a thousand reasons we don’t take feedback, but it can be boiled down to three categories, three kinds of triggers that keep feedback out.

First, truth triggersThe feedback itself seems wrong or off-target, based on incomplete information or poorly aligned with what we’re trying to do. We don’t take the feedback because it’s unfair or lousy. Second, relationship triggersRegardless of the feedback itself, there’s something about our relationship with the person giving us the feedback that is throwing us off.  The giver may be colossally ungrateful for your efforts or not appreciating what we do well. Or maybe we just don’t trust their expertise or their motives. Third, identity triggersWe feel too overwhelmed by the feedback to really engage in the conversation. It undermines how we see ourselves, or threatens our sense of safety or well-being. We can’t learn because we can’t think, and the feedback becomes distorted. Dealing with identity triggers means being able to see the feedback you get at “actual size.”

KK: Who is the ideal audience for Thanks for the Feedback?
DS and SH: When systems and business expert Peter Senge read Difficult Conversations, he said that the only people who shouldn’t read the book are those who “never work with people, anywhere.” A natural audience for the book will be people in organizations – whether a business, a school, a hospital, a community board or a government department. Executives, team leaders, HR professionals and learning officers may have a special interest in getting their colleagues to read the book. But the book is written with family life equally in mind. We get at least as much feedback from family members, neighbors and friends as we do at work, and that feedback can be even more useful – and more troubling. Some of the most interesting examples are drawn from daily life, and importantly, the framework, skills and tools are the same whether you’re at home or at work.

KK: Are there times where it’s better just to ignore feedback all together?
DS and SH: Yes. Relentless feedback can do real damage to your sense of self and sometimes you need to create boundaries. We should also take this opportunity to clarify that getting better at receiving feedback doesn’t mean you have to take the feedback. Getting better means overcoming our tendency to do quick wrong-spotting to dismiss the feedback we get long enough to really dig into what the giver means, where the feedback is coming from, and where it is going – what they are suggesting you do instead. It may mean challenging yourself to find something right about the feedback. But the heart of receiving well is engagement – whether you are curious and open, and at the same time able to stand up for how you see things and what you think is right. Once you’ve engaged well, you may decide not to take the feedback, that it’s unfair, not who you are, or simply not what you need right now.

KK: Do men and women receive feedback differently?
DS and SH: There are huge differences in how individuals receive feedback. Differences in wiring can vary as much as 3,000 percent from person to person, in ways that make some of us relatively insensitive to even blunt, brutal feedback, and others highly sensitive, even when the feedback is indirect and mild. Some of us will swing wide emotionally – positive or negative – while others keep an even keel. And the amount of time it takes each of us to recover varies, whether that’s bouncing back from upsetting information, or the amount of time we can sustain the positive boost of good news. Each of these variables differs among individual men and amongst women, and in our view these individual differences outweigh any patterns we’ve seen between “women” and “men” as a group.

KK: As much of our lives are now broadcasted on the internet, it seems that feedback is constant. Should online feedback be received differently?
DS and SH: 
Definitely. Feedback in three-dimensional human relationships in your real life has you in mind.  Online feedback often does not. It’s easy for those who are “commenting” on your blog or your YouTube video to forget that there is a real person on the other end of their sarcasm and barbed remarks. Their purpose in commenting usually isn’t to help you or to improve a relationship; it’s to make themselves look smart, funny, or insightful or to vent frustrations in their own lives. In that sense, online feedback often isn’t about you at all – you are just a catalyst for them to say something about themselves.

At the same time, it’s difficult not to be hurt when you are public misunderstood or viciously attacked. Do you use the feedback think about whether there are ways you might have expressed yourself more clearly, anticipated the reaction, or want to do something differently in the future? But don’t spend too much time thinking about them and their issues. They certainly aren’t thinking about you.


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