Good feedback, whether you are on the receiving or giving end, requires an attitude of curiosity and openness. Intentionally creating space for feedbackcan help, but even with the right space, receiving feedback can be really scary. Many organizations have formal systems of feedback in the style of mid-year and annual reviews. And it’s not uncommon for informal continuous feedback to supplement formal reviews. Formal or informal, the moment feedback is on the table, there’s a good chance our amygdala is going to freak out. And when it does, it’s fight, flight, or freeze time. With practice, we can move away from defensiveness and reactivity, and find ways to receive feedback while remaining grounded, open, and curious.
What happens when we receive feedback?
The most common thing people do when receiving feedback is internalize it. Immediately. It just comes into our inner landscape and takes up permanent residence. The challenge when feedback is internalized so quickly is that we lose the space and perspective to examine it, understand, and process it. And when we bypass these critical steps, feedback becomes Truth. This is why reactivity and defensiveness are common responses when we experience feedback — it feels like a Truth has just been shared that we weren’t invited to participate in creating.
The receiving feedback checklist
Step 1: Check-in with yourself. Get grounded. Get curious.
I begin everything with a self-checkin, and receiving feedback is no different. As soon as you realize you are in a feedback conversation, take a few deep breaths. Connect to your center. Feel your feet. How are you feeling? What is your energy like? Where is your attention being drawn? What emotions are coming up? Take a few deep breaths, and see if you can find a little more ease in your body.
Step 2: Listen from Center
Listen to what the other person has to say. But not just any kind of listening, centered listening. In her book Leadership Embodiment, Wendy Palmer distinguishes between “listening from personality” and “listening from center”.
- Listening from personality: a good clue you’re in this mode is a need for control, approval, and safety. If what is being said isn’t what you want to hear, feelings of stress, anxiety, and irritation will come to the fore when listening from personality making it harder to receive, assess, and process information. In this mode, our bodies might physically contract, causing the mind to contract, stress hormones to kick in, and suddenly fight, flight, or freeze responses kick in.
- Listening from center: characteristics of this mode include an awareness of the big picture, feelings of interconnection, and a widening of possibilities. There is a curiosity about the situation, about what is being heard, and what is being understood. Our bodies are open and relaxed. The ability to listen to what is being said and what is not being said is another characteristic of this mode.
I’d wager that most of us, when we find ourselves in feedback conversations, are listening from personality. And this is when amygdala hijacking kicks in and we internalize feedback instantanesouly. Practicing active listening from a centered place creates space for the conversation and for our own reactions.
Step 3: Put the feedback on a plate
Imagine there is a plate between you and person sharing feedback. As they speak, imagine their words going onto the plate, where you can examine them. This visualization keeps the words external, allows you to see what is being shared, and to look at it more objectively. From this vantage point you can ask clarifying questions, seek to understand what is being shared, and remain grounded and listen from center. Keep the feedback on the plate as the feedback conversation progresses.
Step 4: Distinguish between facts and opinions
One of the things look for when receiving feedback is opinions masquerading as facts. There is a whole theory of language around this, but essentially it goes like this: facts are observable and grounded. “It’s 65F degrees outside.” This is a fact. Opinions are interpretations of facts. “It’s warm outside,” and “it’s cold outside,” could both be accurate opinions for the same 65F degree day, depending on a number factors such as where the speaker grew up, body type, quality of circulation, and amount of clothes currently being worn.
In a feedback conversation, this might show up in a comment along the lines of, “you need to speak up more.” Sounds like a fact, doesn’t it? But it’s actually an opinion based on how the speaker interprets the world. With the feedback sitting on the plate in front of you, and having flagged this as an opinion masquerading as a fact, you can now start to ask clarifying questions to understand what the speaker is really trying to say. They probably aren’t asking you to speak just for the sake of hearing yourself talk (although I do know company cultures where this is A Thing), but there is something they think can be solved by sharing their opinion-as-fact. Maybe they spoke to 10 people in other departments and none of them knew what your team was working on. Or maybe they are multi-tasking in meetings and aren’t listening when you speak. Whatever it is, “you need to speak up more,” is not a fact, nor is it very actionable feedback. Once you can see these language constructions in action, it becomes easier to use them as anchors for clarifying conversations.
Step 5: Add a few responses and gestures to your toolkit
It can be useful to have a few go-to phrases and responses at the ready to help create space for processing in the midst of a feedback conversation in order to slow the conversation down, modulate reactivity, and create new possibilities for responding. You might do something like take some really deep breaths while nodding slowly, saying something along the lines of, “This is new information for me and I’m going to need a few moments to process it,” or “I’m really surprised to hear this, can you provide more context?”
Sometimes we find ourselves receiving feedback from someone who feels very ‘correct’ in their interpretation of the world and gets agitated when you start to ask open and honest questions. This is a tricky situation to be in, and it means that you aren’t going to be in a learning conversation because the other side simply wants to corroborate their opinion of the situation. Do not internalize the feedback they have given you. Leave the feedback on the plate in front of you, thank the person for the feedback, and tell them you will reflect on what they had to share. Find a trusted colleague, a coach, or a peer group to debrief with, and look at the breakdown of facts and opinions. There will likely be a few insights for you, but it might take some work to get at them.
It can feel like a lot is at stake when we’re on the receiving end of a feedback conversation. As human beings, we construct interpretations of our world based on our own patterns of observing, acting, reflecting, and understanding. Because we only have access to a small set of facts, we create structures of interpretations that reinforce our personal world view. In a feedback conversation, multiple structures of interpretations are interacting with each other. Great feedback conversations acknowledge this and look for shared outcomes and understanding. Listening from center, keeping feedback on a plate, and paying attention to facts-as-opinions can make the art of receiving feedback much easier, more insightful, and eventually more easeful. So give it a try the next time someone shares feedback with you, and see what happens. Good luck!