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January 16, 2018

Thanks for the feedback!

Why we struggle to receive well and what we can do about it
Yesterday, I called my friend hoping for mental support, but instead, I received unexpected advice. It took me almost 24 hours until her words sunk in so that I could eventually reflect on her ideas and appreciate their value. I realised that I had nearly missed a great learning opportunity because my emotions deterred me from listening to her feedback.

“Advice is probably the only free thing which people won’t take.”

Lothar Kaul cited in: Gino & Schweitzer 2008

While almost every leadership program covers the topic of giving feedback, few address the challenge of how to receive well, although the benefits are plentiful. By listening to others’ advice we become aware of our blind spots and can improve ourselves, our products or services and our relationships. In this article, I describe why we struggle to receive feedback and what we can do about it.

The challenge

While giving feedback might be easy for some and difficult for others, we all struggle in receiving feedback and most often fail accepting it. Receiving feedback is an emotional journey, accepting it is an odyssey because we tend to confuse comments about our doing with the examination of our being. In fact, whenever we have the impression that someone questions our being, we feel resistance. We tend to forget that feedback addresses our behaviour and not our identity, and thereby ignore that it might be appropriate, objective or helpful.

“Identity is the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what the future holds for us, and when critical feedback is incoming, that story is under attack.”

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

Yesterday’s resistance against my friend’s feedback was amplified by the fact that it caught me by surprise. And most feedback arises unexpectedly, triggering stress which make us either fight (we start a debate), flight (we find excuses) or freeze (we black-out). As we know, neither of the reactions help us to learn from feedback because we already fail in hearing it.

What to do

To better deal with stressful situations, we can practice self-awareness or mindfulness, and both help to overcome the urge to react to our emotions.[1] Also, we can improve our reaction to critical feedback through the practice of actively seeking it. When we reach out to potential critics, we gain time to prepare, adjust our expectations and become ready to listen and learn.

“Once people take ownership over the decision to receive feedback, they’re less defensive about it.”

Adam Grant

Among all benefits of asking for feedback, the most prominent is the one that allows us to prepare our own mindset for an eventual setback. In fact, evidence shows that we are more open to critical comments when we feel safe, trust and gratitude because we sense the good intention of our counterpart. The obstacle is though, that we feel trust towards those who are similar to us but learn most from those who are not because they show us what we don’t see and teach us what we don’t know.

“Pity the leader caught between unloving critics and uncritical lovers.”

John W. Gardner, cited by Jim Kouzes

Given the difficulty to ask unloving critics for feedback, we can rehearse with a board of loving critics who challenge us vigorously because they care. With them, we will be able to practice “active listening”, a skill that implies the deferral of any assumptions, judgement and reaction and which we need to truly grasp the content of the feedback.
I once witnessed a group of students who received expert feedback on their start-up projects. Despite their presentations remaining ungraded, they reacted with tirades of explanations and interrupted jury members to highlight that they have already thought about this. Yet, it seemed as if students had a different understanding of what this was, and since they did not ask, they never found out.
Our defensive reactions to comments often reveal blind spots that are worth investigating. If we manage to spot an emotional response early enough to suppress replies like ‘yes, but…’ or ‘yes, and … me too’ we have almost succeeded. Then, we can investigate the other’s perspective through thoughtful questions.
In order to be effective though, such questions must remain non-rhetorical and open and rarely start with ‘why’ because why-questions usually sound as if we had the answer already. Ultimately, a humble inquiry will reward us with eye-opening insights and stronger bonds to our counterparts who will feel valued and heard via our curiosity.

The nutshell to take home

The skill of receiving feedback well is not only neglected; its benefits, in terms of learning opportunities and improved human relationships, are widely underestimated. As we tend to take advice personally, we often miss valuable insights because we fail to hear the content. However, we can overcome our innate resistance to feedback through self-awareness, and we can practice receiving feedback within a safe environment by simply asking for it. Ultimately, it is the ability of active listening, the deferral of judgment and assumptions, that will turn us into great receivers who understand the true nature of the advice and turn it into success.
Yet, we do not have to accept everything that is presented to us. After listening, hearing and understanding, it remains our choice to accept or reject the feedback. Hearing does not mean taking and after all, mastering the skill of receiving well, includes the capability of declining respectfully.

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[1] Research has shown that many executives lack the ability to listen and consequently suffer from lower leadership outcomes. In contrast, those who seek other’s opinion benefit from more success and higher fulfilment.