Niklaus Gerber

September 20, 2022

Giving feedback is easy, receiving feedback is hard.

My thoughts and experience on why receiving feedback is demanding and how you can improve. 

Especially in the work context, a lot of companies are focusing on building a better feedback culture. Most of the initiatives I have been part of in my career have been focused on giving feedback. Feedback training sessions usually will teach you how to phrase and structure feedback. 

Giving great feedback is not easy and does need a lot of practice. I will cover in a future post how you can become a better feedback giver. But before you learn to give feedback, you should understand how to receive and process it. Unfortunately, many people I have met were never taught how to do so. 

It becomes even worse when people in feedback training sessions use it as a carte blanche to be jerks. Too often, I heard people say things like: "Well, we should be franker with feedback. Your work is always crap, and you are bad at your job." 

But even if you are receiving feedback from an expert, it is often overwhelming. Suddenly you start defending yourself, or you are not even sure how to process and learn from the feedback. 

Feedback should be a gift. I'll try to teach you how you can treat it as one. 

I helped a lot of people how to become better feedback receivers. Suddenly feedback became less daunting, and they started to learn more from it. So what can you do to become a better receiver?

First, it is essential to understand that the feedback you receive is about what you do and does not define who you are. It is hard to change yourself, but it is possible to change your actions. 

Feedback can trigger a need to explain or defend because your perception of a situation often differs from that of the person giving the feedback.

Common pitfalls to avoid when receiving feedback:

  1. You get defensive
  2. You try to prove them wrong
  3. You feel you have to do something to change yourself
  4. You answer to justify yourself
  5. You dismiss the information
  6. You feel helpless to do anything about what you heard
  7. You change the focus and attack the speaker
  8. You generalise the message and feel wrong about everything
  9. You generalise the message and think you're perfect at everything

It is vital to make an effort to listen to the feedback given. In this way, we show that feedback is welcome, even if it may be unpleasant. At the same time, we are also offering the person giving the feedback that we respect the way they feel about our behaviour. In this instance, listening is the same thing as staying quiet. Look at the person and try to understand what they want to say. Once we receive the feedback, we can use dialogue to clear up misunderstandings.

Suppose someone might use generalisation and point out that you are always doing something. You might want to hear about some specific examples of when it happened. Before you start processing any feedback, you should ensure that you have the full context and understand the feedback given. Once you know the input, you can begin processing it. 

The five levels of reacting to feedback

The first three levels, discardingdefendingexplaining, you should avoid at all costs. This has nothing to do with actually responding to feedback.

Discarding: "This has nothing to do with me."

Defending: "No, that's not how it was."

Explaining: "Yes, but..."

Level four, understanding, is where you should start. Understanding means that you will listen and accept. I recommend ending the feedback session with these five words and then walking away: "Thank you for your feedback". The other person will feel heard and will continue to give you feedback, and you will have the time to reflect on it. There is no need to respond to feedback when you get it.

Many people don't understand that if you receive feedback, you don't have to take it on board and change any of your actions. If the feedback is helping you to improve your actions, it is even better. So how can you react to feedback? This brings us to the fifth and final level.

You have three options. You can either change, remain or reinforce. You make your own conscious choice. 

Change: You take the feedback on board, and you try your best to improve the best you can. 

Remain: You listen to the feedback but consciously decide not to change your actions. It might be helpful to share back at a later point why you decided against changing. 

Reinforce: Sometimes, people might not like your actions and will give feedback to you so. You might have a good reason or no other reasons why you are acting the way you do. In this circumstance, you should get back to the person and share why you choose not to take the feedback onboard. 

So what should you take away from this? If you receive feedback, there is never a need to argue back. You should ensure you understood what the person shared, and thank you for the feedback. Now it is up to you to reflect on how you want to incorporate the feedback. Do you want to change, or do you decide not to? When you do the reflection, remember that feedback received is always about your actions and not about you. 

Give it a try and share how receiving feedback changed for you. I am sure these small changes will improve the relationships you have. 

About Niklaus Gerber

My thoughts on leadership, life, productivity, design, and innovation.