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How To Get Better At Asking And Receiving Feedback


"I love criticism. As long as it's unqualified praise." – Noel Coward

Here's a question that'll get anyone to break into a cold sweat instantly. 

"Hey, can I give you some feedback?"

Next, you'll hear a big gulp followed by a tentative 'Yeah, sure' that fails to hide a more honest answer, which is: "Absolutely not!"

Let's face it, feedback sucks. 

None of us wants a reminder of how fallible we are or that we're not living up to someone's standards. 

And yet, despite our misgivings, we'll never learn and improve without exposing ourselves to it on a regular basis. 

Like any other phobia, the only way to overcome it is to expose yourself to it more often.  

In this month's article, I'll examine how to improve your ability to ask for and receive feedback. 

Instead of the cold shower extinguishing your illusion of perfection (or confirming the imposter you always knew to be), you'll learn to treat feedback like one of those Wim Hof ice baths you might take in the gym.

The more often you do them, the easier they become, and as uncomfortable as you might feel in the beginning, you push through in the belief it'll probably benefit you in the long run. 

Why we're so bad at feedback 

Author Sheila Heen believes receiving feedback is difficult because it involves two competing core needs.

On the one hand, we have a desire to learn and improve because personal and professional growth makes us happy.

On the other hand, we also want to feel respected and loved for being the people we are right now

As a result, we often interpret negative feedback as evidence of how flawed we continue to be. 

And that's painful to accept. 

In fairness, almost all of us are bad at getting any kind of feedback — positive or negative. 

How bad depends on a couple of elements. 

The first is your so-called emotional set point, the baseline emotion one naturally returns to. 

For example, some people are inherently light-footed, while others take a more dim approach to life. 

The former will often brush over any negative opinion unless delivered straightforwardly, while the latter may have an emotional breakdown at even the slightest hint of critique. 

The second element is how quickly you move on from negative feedback. 

Some people take criticism on the chin and move forward fairly quickly, while others may take days, weeks or months to recover. 

You can't easily change either trait, but even if you're a little pessimistic and hyper-sensitive by nature, actively avoiding exposure to criticism will massively stifle your personal and professional growth. 

3 types of feedback 

There are three types of feedback, and we respond to each one differently. 

The first is appreciation

This is the one we like the most – a pat on the back from your boss for a job well done or a glowing LinkedIn reference from an old colleague to remind you how amazing you are.  

The second type is evaluation, which involves assessing how our behaviour stacks up to a certain baseline, such as 'meets or exceeds expectation' or a score out of ten. 

Evaluation is also the most emotionally loaded form of feedback because it's usually delivered as a series of dry facts and statements about how we are failing. 

It often also lacks context and detail and can, therefore, be hard to interpret. 

Lastly, there's coaching – the most practical and least painful way to receive information about your performance. 

Coaching is useful because it guides you towards figuring out how to get better at something.

It's also less painful than being evaluated because it turns the mirror towards the wonderful self you show promise to be rather than the flawed individual you've been up until now. 

Notice how often criticism is delivered in the form of a feedback sandwich, where the giver tries to coat any negative comments by starting and ending on a positive note. 

"I love how much effort you put into this presentation, Susan. Visually, it was stunning, and it hit all the right notes. I can tell you put so much thought into it. However, your delivery felt a little hesitant in parts and you didn't seem your usual confident self. But don't worry because we've seen glimpses of how great a presenter you've been in previous presentations."

I can assure you that the only feedback Susan will remember is the meat in that sandwich, which is how cr*p her presentation was, and she's likely to either brush over the positive messages or interpret them as inauthentic. 

Getting better at asking for feedback 

The higher you move up in your career, the less likely you'll receive direct feedback. 

Most leaders end up working in a feedback vacuum, as do many freelancers and small business owners. 

That's why it's so important to be proactive about asking for it and developing a habit of asking supervisors, colleagues, mentors, clients, friends and partners for their views on how you're doing. 

The more often you ask, the easier it becomes to receive it, and the more comfortable people will become in delivering some honest truths. 

Always ask for actionable feedback. 

Rather than a "Hey, could you let me know how I'm doing here?", ask for one specific behaviour, like: "What is the one thing you'd like me to start doing more of? 

Or, "What's one thing you'd like me to stop doing?", or "What's one thing you think I do well and would like me to continue doing? 

By asking those around you for a specific improvement, they will feel less like you put them on the spot.

Getting better at receiving feedback 

Receiving negative feedback sucks, no matter how often you get it. 

The only thing you can do to soften the blow of criticism is to prepare yourself mentally for it by seeking it out yourself. 

Whatever feedback you're given – true or false, fair or unfair – never interrupt the other person or become defensive. 

Indeed, there are only two correct ways to respond: thank them or ask for clarification. 

It's tempting to jump in and prove how someone misinterpreted your behaviour or simply got it wrong. 

So, instead of dismissing their comments, ask for more details or suggest they provide a few examples. 

Say someone tells you you're a bad listener. 

Ask them if they can provide a few instances where they felt they weren't being listened to and what they think you could have done better in that situation.

If their feedback is genuinely untrue, they'll struggle to come up with examples, so keep pushing them for further information on what specific behaviours you fell short of. 

However, becoming defensive is an absolute trust breaker, and given how much courage it takes to critique someone, the least you can do is hear them out. 

Afterwards, you thank them, lest you want them to think twice before ever giving you feedback again. 

If feedback is delivered to you as an evaluation, always ask for time to process it and get past your initial emotional response first before entering the coaching element, because as long as your emotions feel heightened, it'll be difficult for you to enter coaching mode and absorb all those valuable suggestions on how to improve.  

Conclusion: get over yourself already

Getting feedback is unpleasant, but let's face it; it rarely happens that someone tells you something you didn't already know. 

The only way to get over that unpleasant feeling is to get over yourself. 

Yes, you might feel vulnerable, but be grateful someone took the time to offer you their full attention and had the courage to expose some of your blind spots. 

Don't get too hung up on specific feedback; start listening out for themes that suggest where to focus your learning and improvements. 

Above all, remember that even after thanking someone for their feedback, nobody is forcing you to accept or act on it. 

You're free to ignore any feedback that strikes you as unsubstantiated rubbish.

Before you bow out

Sorry to interrupt, but

I send out one short email at the end of each month with a few practical tips on how to develop a more meaningful and exciting life and career.

You'll also be the first to find out about my next group coaching programme and upcoming retreats.

I send out one short email at the end of each month with a few practical tips on how to develop a more meaningful and exciting life and career.

You'll also be the first to find out about my next group coaching programme and upcoming retreats.