Why You Hate Feedback and How to Learn to Love It

Apr 3, 2014
8 Min Read

This morning your mirror confirmed that yes, indeed, you do look fat in those pants. Your new puppy let you know that your house-training efforts are not working. Then you got to work and your boss had edited your report so heavily the only original thing was your name and the date.

No matter where we get feedback – from our dog or our boss – it can be difficult to take. Even our own mirror doesn’t want to be a friend to us on some days.

We’re often coached on how to give feedback, but no one tells us how to hear feedback and like it. Or at least hear it and not assume the fetal position or punch a hole in the wall.

In a new book, “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well,” authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen contend that how we receive feedback is even more important than how it’s given. In other words, someone can give you really great feedback, but if you’re not open to receiving it in a positive way, what difference does it make?

What are some reasons you dismiss feedback?   Consider:

  • Truth triggers. The feedback seems off-target and is based on incomplete information or out of line with what you’re trying to do. You believe it to be lousy feedback, so you ignore it.
  • Relationship triggers. Forget whatever is being said, it’s the relationship with the person offering the feedback that is the problem. Maybe the person doesn’t appreciate your efforts or accomplishments. It could also be that you distrust the other person’s motives or expertise.
  • Identity triggers.  You’re so overwhelmed by the feedback you can’t discuss it. It undermines how you see yourself in some way, or even threatens your sense of safety or well-being. The feedback can become distorted because you’re so out of sorts.

Stone and Heen say that you can become better at receiving feedback if you don’t immediately dismiss it as wrong in some way, such as determining the advice might be right for someone else, but not for you. They call this “wrong spotting,” and say it defeats learning.

Instead, they advise that you must first try to understand the feedback fully without immediately dismissing it for some reason. By using “difference spotting,” you can seek to understand as specifically as you can exactly why you and the person offering the feedback see things differently. It’s also helpful to look at what about the feedback makes sense or is worth trying, they say.

But at the heart of learning to receive feedback well is engagement, they stress.

If you’re curious and open (while still standing up for your beliefs and values), then you’ve become engaged in the conversation and you can give the feedback a fair hearing and decide to take it or decide it’s not what you need right now, they say.

The authors explain that receiving feedback is really an art, and we have to work at it to do it well since our bodies and brains have a physical reaction to it. Strong feelings, often evoked by feedback, can accompany chemicals that alter how we process information and can distort the feedback we are hearing, they explain.

It’s something they call the “Google bias,” which means one lone criticism of your tardiness at work by a colleague can trigger an assessment of your entire life.

“It’s like Googling, ‘Things that are wrong with me,’” the authors say. “You get 1.2 million hits…suddenly it feels like you can’t do anything right.”

This distorted view of yourself does not take into account your positive, wonderful accomplishments and all the things that make you special, they explain.

While it’s clear not all of us love getting feedback, the research shows that those who seek it out – especially the negative kind—are seen as more competent and can settle into new roles more quickly. They also fare better on performance reviews.

Helpful feedback

If you’re ready to get ahead at work, here are some ways to solicit feedback that is likely to be helpful, they say:

  1. Be specific. Don’t ask, “Do you have any feedback for me?” Instead, ask something like “What’s one thing you see me doing – or failing to do – that’s getting in my own way?”
  2. Seek out those who rub you the wrong way. People we like and who like us in return aren’t going to point out areas to improve since they probably think everything is great. Look for the colleague you clash with and ask the question listed above. You’re likely to gain insight into what you do to bug that person, and also make some headway in improving the relationship.
  3. Write it down. If you feel the feedback you’ve received is way off, write down what is wrong with it and what might be right. It just might be that there’s one thing that can give you the insight you need.

Remember, once you’re tuned into what may be right with any feedback instead of what’s wrong, you open the door to more learning and better relationships.

How to do keep yourself open to feedback?

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