Learning from feedback

Receiving personal or professional feedback from coworkers, friends, or family can be scary, especially if you haven’t asked for it, or aren’t prepared to hear it.

When someone tells you that they don’t like your perfume, your music is too loud, or your presentation induced comas…well, any of that feedback might feel overwhelming, threatening, or completely unfair.

When you receive unsolicited feedback, it’s easy to discount that feedback, explain away your actions, or go on the offensive against the person giving the feedback by pointing out his faults.

For example, as you are leaving the break room, your workmate says “Don’t just put your dirty dish in the dishwasher. It’ll sit there for a week before someone turns it on. Wash it!” You reply, “Hey, you don’t always wash your dishes either!”

Topic-switching is a masterful move that puts the other person on the defense, distracts attention away from you, and allows you to feel justified about not listening to feedback from a person who obviously needs more help than you do.

Challenge yourself to hear feedback, even unsolicited feedback, as learning: about you, about the other person, about opportunities for improving the work relationship. Just because someone shares a perspective with you, doesn’t mean it’s accurate. You get to choose what you find useful. But you can’t discern what’s useful if you aren’t open to hearing the feedback.

Consider why people give you feedback. Usually they want to help.  They care about you personally and/or professionally and want you to be your best. Or perhaps they care about the quality of the work relationship and want to feel more comfortable working with you. They have a perspective that you do not have which allows them to see your blindspots better than you!

Maybe you said or did something that felt disrespectful to the other person and aren’t aware of the impact you had on them. Their feedback creates an opportunity for you to learn about their experience, your blindspot, and, and if appropriate, apologize and clarify your intent.

If you can hear your coworker’s feedback as an expression of care and an opportunity for learning, you allow yourself the chance to improve your skills, learn more about how your coworker sees you and the world, and possibly repair and improve the relationship.

Here are some tips for receiving feedback.  With practice, awareness and patience your ability to receive feedback—constructive or otherwise—becomes easier.

  • Work on gaining insight about yourself first. Use the Johari Window to notice what aspects of yourself you might hide from others, or what blindspots you’ve received feedback on before yet continue to beguile you.
  • Practice receiving feedback. Find a trusted ally, someone whose views you value and who you trust. Ask your ally for feedback using the Johari Window. What blindspots can your ally help you notice? What hidden aspects of your self would be useful for your ally to know about you?
  • Accept feedback as helpful information based on how someone else sees you.
  • Listen without rebuttal or topic-switching. Ask for clarification and examples so you can understand the feedback more completely.
  • Give yourself time to think about and emotionally process the feedback before acting on it. Request another conversation in a day or two if that would be useful.
  • Determine if there may be some validity to the information.
  • Thank the person who took the risk to give you the feedback.
  • Give yourself credit for listening with curiosity, learning about your blindspots, and getting better at being you.

Contributors to this post include Pam Wyss and Don Moritz.

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