How to Hear (and do something with) Tough Feedback

By Morag Barrett on February 5, 2019

How many times have you gotten feedback that ruffled your feathers or caused you to roll your eyes? Yet later, when you’d calmed down and put righteous indignation aside, you realized that you’d misheard the message and there was indeed a grain of truth in what had been shared?

Effective feedback isn’t only about how you communicate the message to others, it’s also how you hear the message from others. Read on to make sure that you LEAD (Listen, Express Appreciation, Assess and Decide) with feedback.
  • Listen. One of the biggest challenges when receiving feedback is to truly listen, remain curious, and avoid jumping to conclusions. We have an innate tendency to hear the worst and make the leap from “oh no, my presentation could have been better” to “I’m losing my job” in about a nano-second, when in fact the intended feedback was “Your presentation was great, and here are some suggestions to take it to amazing.”
    Leadership Action: When receiving feedback try to remain focused on what is being said by the other person, not what is being said in your head!
  • Express Appreciation. The first words you should utter in response to feedback is “Thank you!” Think of feedback as the metaphorical gift, the answer to a problem you (hopefully) didn’t know you had, or a recognition of something you are doing well. We often forget to say thank you when we receive positive feedback, instead we dismiss it with a quick wave of the hand and a swift, “Oh, it was nothing. Don’t mention it.” However, let’s get real for a moment and assume that a colleague has just provided some very ‘candid’ feedback and pointed out all the ways you fell short of expectations. The reality is none of us are likely to smile sweetly and say thanks. Tough feedback, even when we know it is accurate and especially when we think it isn’t, stings.
    Leadership Action: Saying “thank you” out loud, or in our heads gives us pause to consider our response, rather than reacting. If having listened to the feedback you are still confused, then ask clarifying questions or for specific examples. In doing so, it is possible to acknowledge the feedback by saying “I appreciate your feedback. Can you give me an example so I can better understand what I did and can do differently?”
  • Assess. Just because someone has shared their point of view doesn’t mean you need to act on it! Assess the feedback. If it’s the first time you’ve received it then wait, be vigilant, see if it reoccurs, and if it doesn’t you’re welcome to choose not to act on it. If it’s come from a senior leader, reflect on the potential relationship impact if you choose not to act. If this is the 15th time you’ve been given the feedback, maybe NOW is the time to act before it becomes a career liability. If you completely disagree with the feedback given, ask yourself, “What is the 1% truth?” in their message.
    Leadership Action: Consider someone’s motives in offering you feedback. You can then assess what options are open to you and what it would take for you to step up and address the feedback.
  • Decide. Feedback is one way you can understand other people’s experience of working with you. I’ve yet to meet anyone who comes to work with the intent of delivering a poor presentation or making a mistake, yet it happens to all of us at some point. You are not obliged to act on feedback, though it is a risk if you choose not to. And that’s the secret to hearing feedback –  make it a deliberate choice to either act on it or not. As Marshall Goldsmith asks in his book TRIGGERS, “What are you ready, willing and able to work on right now?” If your heart isn’t in it, if you have other competing priorities, if you don’t care about the feedback you have been given, then it is unlikely that you will be successful at making any sustained behavior change.
    Leadership Action: If you decide to act, then circle back to the person who provided the original feedback and say something along the lines of “Thanks again for the feedback. I have been working on X. Would you say I have improved/stayed the same/got worse. What’s one suggestion you have for me going forward?” And then, whatever they suggest, say “thank you”, this is not the time to evaluate their suggestion with “Tried it,” or “That would never work.”
Feedback gets a bad rap. It’s not something we all rush to give or get more of. Yet the reality is, giving and receiving feedback is the cornerstone to a high performing organization and for a high performing you!
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