Stop learning to give feedback. Learn to receive it.

Most of us say we want feedback. That is, until we actually get it. Then we get a little defensive:

“Well, actually, what I meant was…”

“I see what you’re saying, but you misunderstood.”

“Really? Because you’re not great at that either!” (A classic.)

These are all ways of saying, “Thanks for your feedback, but you’re wrong."

You know how to give feedback... But how good are you at taking it?

Most of us learned how to give feedback to other people. We learned frameworks like the Sh*t Sandwich, and we learned the importance of empathy and the need to aim for behavior change. But we’ve spent a lot less time learning how to process feedback if we’re the recipient.

This is a missed opportunity. It’s low-cost for you to get better at receiving feedback, and it'll pay dividends in your career, relationships and reputation as a leader.

The good news: Most people are terrible at receiving feedback, so you only need to be a little better at this skill to stand out.

If you get better at receiving feedback, you’ll have stronger, more resilient relationships. You’ll have more open dialogue with your coworkers, and the people around you will feel heard. You’ll play a part in reducing the anxiety that comes with having tough conversations.

And, most importantly, you’ll gain specific insights into how you’re perceived by the people closest to you. This gives you more ammunition to become a stronger leader and manager.

Is your team afraid of telling you the truth?

According to a survey conducted by Interact, and written up in Harvard Business Review, two-thirds of managers are afraid of telling their direct reports hard feedback for fear of how they’ll react.

Think about that for a minute: 67% of bosses are afraid of talking to their own direct reports. If bosses are afraid, how do you think your direct reports feel when contemplating whether to give you feedback?

If your people aren’t telling you something you should hear, you both lose.

"I hope they don't retaliate..."

The last time you gave someone honest feedback, you might have held your breath when you finished speaking. You might have doubted whether you should have said anything at all. What if things get worse because the person feels resentful? What if they retaliate by being more critical of your work?

There’s little upside for people to tell you the truth if you’re going to get unduly hurt. When your colleague, boss or direct report is being honest with you, they’re taking a leap of faith that you’re going to give them the benefit of the doubt that the feedback comes from a good place.

Turn defensiveness into curiosity

Just because you feel defensive doesn’t mean you should act on your initial impulses. Instead, assume positive intent. Find out more about what caused the person to say what they said.

For example, here are phrases you could use to respond:

  • “I appreciate you sharing this with me. It shows you have a lot of trust in our relationship to be able to speak so openly. Could you tell me more about what you mean?”
  • “What you shared is helpful. I want to dig deeper and better understand. What did I say or do that made you feel/think that?”

Once you hear their viewpoint, repeat your understanding of what the person said to make sure you heard them correctly. This allows you to be more specific about the context of the feedback.

When someone says you could do X better, it doesn’t mean you do X badly all the time, every day, in every facet of your work. You should find out specifically when this feedback applies, so you can fix it in a targeted way.

Control your facial expression

If you want people to believe that you actually want to hear their feedback, you must look the part.

If you’re raising your eyebrows, looking around incredulously, or look like you’re going to cry… People will realize this was a bad idea to tell you the truth. Hold yourself together during the conversation. Realize that this person cares enough to tell you the truth, and in order to continue getting the truth, you have to look like you appreciate the feedback.

Slow down your breathing, sit up straight, lean forward a little. Adopt the body language you have when you’re having a serious conversation with someone you care about, and want them to know you respect them.

Create psychological safety (so people don’t regret being honest)

We’re not going to focus on how the other person could have said this or that better. We’re only going to focus on ourselves, and what we can do to encourage others to tell us the truth.

When you’re on the receiving end of the feedback, you want to REWARD the person for giving you feedback. You can do this by creating psychological safety and making your conversation a positive experience, something they’ll look forward to next time.

You know how to do this. We talked about body language and facial expression above, but mostly, it takes self-restraint. If you feel the urge to correct the person, stop yourself. This is about the long game, and you want to celebrate the behavior you want to see. In this case, you want to celebrate that your colleague is telling you their truth.

Listen first, then decide whether to incorporate feedback later

Just because you listen to feedback, doesn’t mean you’ll automatically change whenever anyone shares feedback. Regardless of the content of the feedback, they’re still valid data points because the way people perceive you is just as important as your original intent.

If something you’re doing is coming across the wrong way, you now have the power to adjust your behavior to prevent misunderstandings if you wish to do so. It's too much of a mental load to hear the feedback AND analyze it all in one step. When you're in the middle of the conversation, just focus on staying present and getting as much context as you can.

Feedback is a gift

Honest, thoughtful feedback is a gift. While it's fun to think about how other people should change their approach, it's empowering to know that you have control as a feedback recipient. You're 50% of a one-on-one feedback conversation, so if the conversation isn't going the way you hoped, think about what you could do differently. If you commit to getting better at this underrated skill, you’ll create stronger relationships with the people closest to you and get valuable information that can help you level up.

Wes Kao