How to Receive Feedback (Part 1)
Published: August 24, 2021
Estimated reading time: 7.5 min
“Hey, can I give you some feedback?”
How did you feel reading that question? Did you feel your gut tense up and your heart rate speed up? Were you nervous? Curious? Excited?
Also: Does it matter who’s saying it, how much power they have, and what your relationship is like?
If you imagined feeling a negative reaction, you’re not alone. Critical feedback can often elicit a subconscious feeling of fear (blame the amygdala!), as our brains read it as a potential threat to our need for social acceptance and group belonging. This can trigger a fight, flight, freeze, or appease response. Plus, it’s not all biological—who among us hasn’t had a negative experience with feedback?
The good news is that feedback doesn’t always have to feel this way. While our experience of feedback is greatly influenced by who’s delivering it and how it’s delivered, we always have control over how we respond to feedback. The other good news is that when we respond well to feedback, we strengthen relationships and trust, increase the likelihood that we’ll keep getting it, and contribute to a culture of growth, candor, and rigor within our teams. (The same goes for delivering feedback well too!)
In this article, we share our best advice for receiving feedback well, focused on the parts that you have control over.
Calm your brain…
The first step to responding to feedback well is getting your amygdala to chill out long enough to actually hear what the other person is saying (not just what you think they’re saying). When people don’t take the time to calm their brains and manage their feelings, they can’t engage in active listening. This typically results in reacting defensively (wanting to tell your side of the story) or jumping straight to problem-solving and fixing (which should be preceded by appreciating and seeking to better understand the feedback). For managers, setting the stage for active listening—by resisting the urge to defend, explain, or fix—is a crucial skill.
…By calming your body
When developmental or corrective feedback (or the mere suggestion of it) calls up a body-level threat response, tune in. Notice where your body tightens. Put a hand there. If you’re feeling defensive or explain-y, relax your jaw and shoulders. Take deep breaths. Support your body to calm so that your anxiety doesn’t run the show.
…By adopting a feedback-friendly mindset
Offer your amygdala a giant, warm hug by bringing conscious awareness to how you think about feedback. Remind yourself that feedback is…
- A brave offering. It’s often easier to say nothing than to say something, particularly in conflict-avoidant settings. If you’ve ever had to offer tough feedback to another person, you know what it takes to notice the issue, decide to speak up, consider how to offer it, and finally share it. Appreciate that time and energy and know that if you have more positional power, it’s likely that the stakes are higher for them than they are for you.
- A relationship- and trust-building opportunity. Concrete, intentional feedback is an investment (in you as a person and in the relationship).
- An opportunity to grow. Consider what a coach does for an athlete, or a spotter does for a weightlifter—it’s hard to grow without the support, attention, and advice from others, all of which we can get from a good feedback conversation.
- One data point. Each piece of feedback is a data point. It is one person’s perspective about our behavior and its impact. When feedback is tough (in its substance or delivery), it doesn’t have to be about who you are or how much you’re worth.
Engage the feedback
Once you’ve prepared your brain and body, here’s how to engage with the feedback conversation.
Pause and appreciate.
Let the feedback settle (especially if it was hard to hear). You might say, “Thank you for this feedback. I’m just taking it in,” or “I appreciate you offering this. I’m sitting with it for a moment.” If you’re not in a good place to continue the conversation, it might be better to acknowledge this rather than to push through. You could say, “Thank you for that feedback. I need to sit with that. Can we schedule another time to connect on this?”
Probing questions can help you get to clarity and alignment. Different people communicate differently, and it’s best not to assume that what you heard is what the other person meant. And if the feedback offered is about the harm that you’ve caused or a negative impact you had on the person, more information can help you better understand how to course correct or repair harm. Here are some questions you might ask:
- Can you share more about the impact of my behavior or actions?
- What else would you like me to know?
- Can you share more about times when you’ve experienced me showing up this way?
Be careful about probing in a way that comes across as demanding evidence. This conversation isn’t about the other person providing proof, it’s about getting to better understanding.
If feedback is coming from your manager, you might need to clarify the intent by asking, “Is this a suggestion about how to grow (developmental) or something that needs to change (course correcting)?”
Do a repeat-back.
Do a repeat-back to check for understanding. You might say:
- I want to make sure I understand what you’re telling me. Can I say this back to you? (After saying it back, you can ask, “what did I miss?”)
- I’d like to repeat this back to you to make sure we’re on the same page about what you’re sharing. Let me know if any of this doesn’t align with what you shared.
The repeat-back is even more important if the person sharing feedback is your manager or someone with more positional power, and especially if it’s corrective feedback.
Decide what to do (and learn from it)
Feedback is information. Your goal is to learn from it and then choose what you do with it. We know it’s not always simple, especially when there are lines of power and difference involved. The less power you have, the less you feel like you belong, or the more marginalized you feel, the more factors you have to weigh in deciding your response.
Typically, you have a few options:
Make a plan to change your behavior.
Sometimes feedback is straightforward and comes with a specific ask. “Hey, at our last meeting, we were all super rushed at the end because we didn’t have anyone keeping time. Can you assign a timekeeper next time?” In cases like this, the path forward is probably simply to make a plan to change your behavior. Even if the path forward isn’t simple, if the feedback is something you agree with or have received feedback about before, consider what you might be able to commit to doing differently. Think about who you could ask to support you or help you stay accountable.
The kind of feedback that triggers a body-tightening response usually isn’t so simple. If you found the feedback surprising or confusing or if the issue is complex, you might need to spend some more time exploring and unpacking. This could include seeking out the perspectives of others, engaging in more conversations with the feedback-giver, or doing deeper self-reflection. You might need to check for an iceberg and get beneath the surface before responding.
Do nothing (file it away for later).
If you don’t agree with the feedback or if you simply don’t have the capacity to act on it immediately, you always have the option to do nothing and file it away for later. Even when there’s a specific ask or directive, you have the power to choose the path forward. Be mindful that this choice could negatively impact your relationship, especially if sharing the feedback with you required significant courage and labor on the part of the other person. If the feedback came from someone with more power than you, not implementing the feedback could have negative consequences to the level of losing your job. That said, you still have the choice not to implement. We recommend being intentional about choosing this option and communicating about it. You could say, “Thank you for your feedback. I’m not ready to act on it right now, but I want you to know that I heard you.”
What if the feedback feels biased? As much as we love feedback, we know that it’s not always helpful—feedback that is steeped in bias and stereotyping is downright harmful. If you’re on the receiving end of biased feedback, your options are similar to what we laid out above (though we do not recommend that you change your behavior to accommodate someone else’s bias). You can choose to engage further by speaking up and giving feedback on the feedback or by talking to someone else at your organization (a manager, someone in HR, or another trusted person with positional power) to share the situation and your concerns. You could also choose to do nothing. In any case, take it as another data point about the person and remember that when the feedback is biased, it’s not you—it’s them.
Ask for it
After you’ve engaged in feedback and decided what to do with it, continue to build your relationship by asking for feedback going forward. You might even follow up with the person about the feedback specifically: “Remember our conversation about XYZ? Do you have any additional thoughts or feedback for me?”
Receiving feedback well isn’t just about your individual learning and growth—it’s about creating and contributing to a culture of feedback where team members can listen, engage, and learn together in a way that builds relationships and gets better results. One way to up your feedback-getting game is to up your asking game. Increase the chance that you’ll get timely, meaningful, and real-talk feedback by moving beyond the “level one” invitation:
1. Invite feedback.
“Do you have any feedback for me?”
2. Invite feedback with specificity (assume it’s there and normalize these requests).
“What feedback do you have for me about how I facilitated the meeting? I’m specifically interested in your thoughts about how I could have better managed participant engagement.”
3. Invite feedback with specificity and self-reflection.
“I’d love your perspective on what worked and didn’t work. I think the activities were helpful, but I don’t think I gave enough time for people to process. What would you have done differently?”
When you ask for feedback directly, it removes one of the things that makes constructive feedback potentially scary in the first place: the element of surprise. It also lowers the stakes for your teammates to share feedback that might otherwise feel risky and contributes to a feedback culture (especially if you have positional power).
In addition to asking for specific feedback, get the input you need by making it a normal, expected part of how you engage with your colleagues, by building it into your check-in agendas, sharing regular slices of your work, and calendaring time to debrief projects.
Dive deeper into receiving feedback by reading Part 2: How to Receive Feedback About Power, Difference, and Inequity.
Check out our other resources about feedback:
- 5 Tips for Giving Better Feedback
- Give More (and Better) Feedback with CSAW
- CSAW Worksheet and Sample
- How to Give Feedback about Defensiveness
- In Praise of… Praise!
- 2×2 Feedback Form
- How to Receive Feedback (Part 2): Power, Difference, and Inequity
- Case Study: Receiving Feedback about Power, Difference, and Inequity