Your boss asks you to stay on the Zoom call when the meeting ends, and asks, “May I give you some feedback about the presentation you just gave?” Quick! What are you feeling? Does your heart rate speed up? Do you get a little sweaty? Is your stomach doing back flips? If you’re, well . . . human, you probably answered “yes” to at least one of these questions. Don’t beat yourself up: this is your fight, flight, or freeze response at work. You can’t choose how you feel, but you can choose how to respond and what to do with the feedback you receive. Making those thoughtful choices helps to hone the crucial professional skill of receiving feedback openly and graciously.
When you receive constructive feedback, your amygdala, the unevolved lizard brain, is signaling “THREAT!” the same way it would for early humans being chased by wild animals. This reaction was essential for human survival long ago. Not so much today. When feedback amps up emotion and adrenaline and suppresses logical thinking, the stakes aren’t life or death: they are grow or stagnate. The challenge becomes how to resist defensive behaviors, calm our minds, and truly hear the feedback.
Here are a few tips to do just that . . .
1. Recognize Your Triggers. In an ideal world, the people giving us constructive feedback would do so in a way that’s truthful, useful, and kind. It would focus on our specific behaviors, not our personality. It would land softly, on a cushion of positive feedback and good intentions, lovingly layered over time. Those of us living in the real world are more likely to experience feedback a bit differently. In Thanks for the Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen offer three common feedback triggers: Truth (What you’re saying doesn’t sound right or true), Relationship (I can hear this but not from YOU), and Identity (Your feedback shakes up the way I see myself and want others to see me).
What triggers me might not trigger you, and different deliveries (or deliverers!) may trip different triggers. What’s important is that we recognize and name our triggers and the emotions that surface with them before we decide how to respond. If the feedback doesn’t ring true, for example, we may be tempted to defend ourselves. But if we identify this truth trigger, we can shift from “that’s wrong” to “tell me more.” This shift has the twofold benefit of eliciting a potential nugget of useful feedback to help us develop, as it helps us to build a reputation as a skillful receiver of feedback.
2. Buy Time to Process. Don’t feel compelled to respond immediately. Listen—which is to say: try to push aside the many thoughts dying to fall out of your mouth, and just hear what they’re telling you. When you’ve decided that you don’t have to respond immediately, you’ve liberated yourself from your own defenses, from your need to sound articulate, right, or smart. This makes active listening more possible. Now breathe. No, seriously: take a few long inhales, and longer exhales. Ask for more information. Remember, those three simple words, “tell me more” are powerful. They buy you time and let you learn more about where your feedback giver is coming from. If you need more than three words, ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand what they are telling you. Then, thank the person for their feedback, tell them they’ve given you a lot to think about, and ask for time to do just that: think about it.
Once you’ve processed what you heard and decided what is useful and actionable, tell them. Within a couple of days, take the initiative to schedule a quick chat to let them know how what you heard impacted you. Will you do something differently going forward because of their feedback? Will you continue to watch for the behaviors they’ve identified, even if you don’t see what they see this time? Whatever you do with the feedback, close the loop, show appreciation, and let them know you heard them.
3. Make Asking for Feedback a Habit. Studies show that the more we ask for feedback, the better we get at receiving unsolicited feedback, and the more useful it is to us. The researchers at the Neuroleadership Institute recommend that everyone make asking for specific feedback a regular practice. If you run a meeting, don’t just ask your manager how she thinks the meeting went, but drill down to the competencies you’re curious about. Perhaps you want to know what she liked and what she might like to see you change as a facilitator. Maybe you wonder whether the structure of the agenda met your team’s objectives from her perspective.
While you’re asking for feedback, cast a wide net. Don’t just ask your boss but ask colleagues and direct reports as well. This helps to reduce the bias that colors feedback when it comes from only one source. Another benefit of normalizing asking for feedback is that you can get it when you truly need and want it.
The truth is, giving feedback is just as tough as receiving it. We fear hurting someone’s feelings, offending them, or heaven forbid, confronting their tears or anger. So, we hold back. As a result, most of us aren’t getting enough useful feedback. So, start the virtuous cycle today: Ask for feedback, receive it graciously, and watch your team start offering it more often and more skillfully.