Receiving Feedback – Six Scary Words That Make Me Sweat by


“Would you be open to some feedback?” may be the six scariest words I know.

It’s embarrassing to admit what a mess I can be about feedback. I teach this stuff. They’re just words, and so is the feedback that comes with them. For me the problem is one of perspective. No doubt most of the people who say these words just want to share their reaction with purely positive intent. I take whatever it is they say and turn it into commentary about the quality and essence of my being. What’s worse is that my fragile ego prevents me from accepting positive feedback as a counterweight to whatever critical feedback I receive. Give me feedback that is complementary and I dismiss it; give me feedback that is critical and I over-invest in it. I’ve somehow set up a scenario that allows me to lose no matter what the nature of the feedback .

No wonder I teach this stuff, I still have so much to learn about it!

To be fair (to myself), I AM making progress in how I receive feedback, but it’s a long slow road to normalcy. Here are a few things I’m learning about how to receive feedback, and be better for it:

I Remind Myself that I Have An Allergy to Feedback– Before listening to feedback, I take a deep breath and remind me of what I already know: my innate insecurities and not-enoughness are an emotional (vs. physical) allergy , and my allergy does not have to define me. I remind myself that what I am about to hear I will somehow misconstrue. I’m overly sensitive to feedback, like some people are overly sensitive to pollen or nuts or bee stings. I don’t feel bad about myself for having an allergic reaction to pollen, so why should I feel bad about myself if I over-personalize feedback?

I Don’t Just Sit There and Take It – Instead of just waiting for the feedback session to end quietly, I ask questions about what I am hearing. In general, I have found that the longer I stay in conversation with the person providing me with the feedback the easier time I have taking it. The longer we talk, the less biting the feedback often feels.

Impact Matters as Much or More as Intent – If I think the feedback is the result of a misperception of the giver, I don’t interrupt or correct them. In truth, I’m not always successful pulling this one off, but it is what I want to do. There’s what we meant (intent) and how it was received (impact). Instead of justifying my intent, I try to remember that impact matters. Explaining myself sometimes just sends the message that I am defensive, and that can shut down the feedback giver. If I said “yes” to receiving feedback, then that’s what I need to do; receive it.

The Feedback May be About the Receiver, But it’s Also about the Giver – This doesn’t mean I should blow off someone’s feedback, but it does mean I can make a decision about how much of what is being said is about me, or about the other person. For example, if someone tells me I appear disorganized, it’s a good bet that they noticed that in me because they value organization; it MAY mean I need to work on being more organized, that’s up to me to decide.

Don’t Over-Generalize; You are Not Your Feedback –If someone tells you that don’t seem to understand something, that doesn’t mean you’re dumb, wrong or bad, it just means you seem to lack understanding about something, period. Each of us is much more than any one piece of feedback. We each can be paradoxical in how we move through the world: evolving human beings on the one hand, and blind and resistant to change on the other; open to life and learning in one moment and convinced and resolute about being right in the next. Just because feedback may somehow apply to you doesn’t mean it IS you.

Learning to Be Open (to Feedback, or Anything) is a Great Practice in Courage – Learning to be open to receiving feedback, no matter who is giving it, is a great practice in learning to courageously hear what others have to say without going to shame or guilt. At my best, I can receive what someone has to say without doing anything with it other than to listen and hear.

Finally – and this is important, at least to me:

Not Everyone Deserves Your Openness and Vulnerability – In other words, when someone asks you if you’d be willing to hear your feedback, you actually DO have the option of saying “no thanks” and feeling OK about having done so. For me to be open to what you have to tell me, there has to be trust, or at least there has to be the absence of distrust. Set your own limits for when, and from whom, you will receive feedback.

However much of an art as it is to give feedback, for me, it’s twice as heard to receive it. So why do so many (but not all) courses on “feedback” or “difficult conversations with employees” focus so much more on how to say it instead of how to receive it?

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    1 Response to "Receiving Feedback – Six Scary Words That Make Me Sweat"

  1. Michelle says:

    Thank you for writing this. This is so me!

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