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Receiving feedback

While giving negative feedback may feel hard and scary, it can be just as difficult to receive feedback.

Feedback is shaped by the perceptions of the sender and filtered through the perceptions of the receiver. As feedback recipients, it’s our job to sift through feedback, peel apart the layers of perception, extract the meaning, request clarifying information, and choose what part of the message to keep and what to discard.

In situations where the feedback is obvious and doesn’t hit a nerve, that process can be straightforward, but sometimes it’s more complicated. Hearing feedback can trigger our fight/flight/freeze reactions, which are normal human processes for self-protection.

Some people have a fast response and bounce back quickly from feedback conversations; some people need to really process and integrate feedback, and may sit with or revisit a feedback conversation several times.

All of these responses are normal. Having self-awareness of our own feedback style can help us process feedback with more grace. It also enables us to coach others on how to give us feedback in ways that we can receive it well.

Triggers that inhibit receiving feedback

Knowing about triggers can help us process feedback better and figure out why we might be struggling to hear certain things.

These triggers are from , external,Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.

Truth triggers

We perceive the feedback to be wrong, biased, unfair, unactionable, unhelpful, unclear, or of the wrong kind. This may be the voice in our head saying “Why are they telling me this feedback when they don’t know half of what I struggled with to deliver!?”

Relationship triggers

We struggle to disentangle what someone is saying to us from who is saying it and the power dynamics, history, and relationship patterns we have with that person. “They have made it clear many times before - they don’t understand me!”

Identity triggers

When feedback seems like it’s threatening who we think we are as humans and the labels we apply to ourselves. “I am not a bad person!”

Tips for processing feedback better

When we receive feedback that we need to process, first seek to understand the underlying message. Shift from “they are wrong” to “tell me more” and ask questions that will untangle the core feedback message from any misperceptions, distortions, labels, or misunderstandings in the message.

Start by receiving feedback with a statement of appreciation. This can be as simple as “Thank you for sharing this with me.” This simple act makes it easier for feedback givers to be honest and direct, and reinforces a culture of kindness and growth.

It can be helpful to repeat back what you’re hearing, even if you’re struggling to accept it. This can make the giver feel heard, while confirming you’ve understood what they’re communicating. This might be something like: “It sounds like when I assigned that issue, it made you feel like I didn’t understand the workload already on your plate. Is that right?”

Be open about what you need to process the feedback. If you need more time than the meeting allows, say so: “I appreciate that you shared this with me. I need some time to think it through and process it. Can we schedule some time to talk about it next week?”

It could also look like: “Thank you for telling me this. I have a project deadline tomorrow and need more time to reflect. Can I have a couple of days to get through my deadline and we can talk further? I want to understand more clearly what you’re telling me.”

If you find you’re struggling to receive feedback productively:

  • Work with a coach: Coaching is outcome-focused, and a coach does not give advice. Instead, the coach asks thought-provoking questions which lead you to come up with your own solutions. GSA can connect you with TTS-only, multiple free coaching services.
  • Gather a “feedback board of directors” for yourself: Choose people (family, friends, coworkers) you trust and ask for their perspectives on how to understand feedback and parse which parts to act on. Sometimes hearing it from someone “safe” can shift how we interpret the message.
  • Cultivate a , external,growth mindset: If we see ourselves as always in a state of becoming instead of being, then feedback is less personally threatening. Develop a learning practice that suits your style: does reading about growth mindsets before challenging conversations reduce your defensiveness? Do short meditations help?

When to leave feedback behind

If someone offers you feedback that feels rooted in bias or inequity, feels manipulative, or disregards your reality, you may simply want to end the conversation, make yourself notes about what occurred, and leave the feedback behind. Listening to feedback does not mean you agree with it.

In TTS, our , external,TTS-only, HR Workplace Relations Specialist is a resource for working through conflict or escalating concerns.

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