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How to master the art of receiving feedback

By: Mike Jenner, Will Harvey and Alison Hogan, university of Exeter Business School on June 9th, 2022

Giving and receiving feedback can feel uncomfortable, and unfortunately, it’s something people often try to avoid. But feedback is a big deal. Getting better at it will:

  1. Provide you with an accurate picture of your real-life strengths and weaknesses, so you can better leverage those strengths and improve those development areas;
  2. Give other people the opportunity to leverage their strengths and improve their development areas;
  3. Reduce miscommunication and enable more honest, forthright conversations, both of which build relationship quality and trust.

Getting better at giving and receiving feedback will speed your development, accelerate the development of the people you interact with, and build trust in all your relationships (from the C-suite to around the dinner table), making you more influential.

Feedback is not a performance review

Let’s be clear, the feedback we’re talking about here is the informal sharing that happens daily. What this blog isn’t about is the periodic, organizational performance review. An annual performance review must never be a substitute for these daily, informal feedback interactions.

The two have separate functions – a performance review exists to satisfy an organizational system need, whilst daily feedback supports ongoing individual development (including yours). Nothing should ever be raised in an organizational performance review that hasn’t been discussed, ideally multiple times, in daily, informal feedback conversations. There should never be any surprises in a formal performance review.

Giving and receiving feedback

It’s also important to remember there are two separate elements to an effective feedback process: giving it well and receiving it well. Occasionally, a few of our client executives thought that meant “Exactly. I give you feedback and you receive my feedback…”. That’s not what we mean! To be clear, these blogs are absolutely about improving your ability to give feedback well but, at least as importantly, they’re also about improving your ability to hear other people’s feedback well.

This is vitally important because, possibly somewhat counter-intuitively, the single biggest thing you can do to have your feedback be more influential, is to consistently listen to the feedback you are given.

Active listening

But not all listening is created equal. Active listening is the purest and most influential form of listening. Done correctly, active listening:

  • Requires you to pay attention, to focus on what you’re hearing, preventing you from tuning out and thinking about your response;
  • Provides a sense check for the speaker – they get to confirm that what they’re saying is what they’re meaning to say;
  • Closes the loop, by having the speaker understand what you’ve taken away from their communication.

Active listening provides the added benefit of demonstrating your commitment to your shared relationship, because your action of focusing totally on their communication clearly indicates the importance you attach to what they have to say.

So, what is active listening?  It’s demonstrating that you’re hearing, without judgement, what you’re being told.

How do you do it? You summarize the key message(s) you’ve heard and reflect it or them back to the speaker as concisely as possible, along with any emotional intensity if present.

Let’s break that down:

  • Identify the key concepts heard – what was their most important message?
  • Identify any emotion present – do they have any feelings about this message? If so, what are they?
  • Summarize as concisely as possible – what’s the fewest words you can use to summarize that most important message and that emotion, if present?
  • Reflect back to the speaker – share your concise content (and emotion) summary with the speaker

Receiving feedback

Not surprisingly, active listening is the key component of receiving feedback well.

Here’s a five-step model for receiving feedback:

1. Active Listening (micro)

As soon as you clue in that you’re about to receive some feedback, the key step to be effective in the interaction is to commit to active listening. This has two vital benefits:

  • Immersing yourself in practicing this important skill engages your analytical brain to need to deconstruct their communication, creating a distance from your emotional brain that may otherwise want to jump in and defend itself;
  • You’re so busy engaging with what you’re hearing (“What’s the key message I’m hearing? Is there any emotion here? How am I going to summarize this?”) you don’t have time to think about a (possibly ill-judged) response.

Micro-active listening is taking each individual piece of what they say and summarizing it. After your first summary, they may well add to, correct or clarify their communication. You then summarize that next communication, and the next and the next until they finish.

2. Active Listening (macro)

Once they’ve finished, the second step is active listening again, but this time providing your summary of the entirety of the interaction. What’s your summary of the totality of their message and any emotion?

3. Thank/recognize the giver

It is vitally important that you then thank the giver for the feedback that they have shared, irrespective of the content of the feedback or whether you agree with it or not.

It’s by building your reputation as someone genuinely interested in hearing feedback that you create an environment where you continue to be given the constructive feedback vital for your future development. If you do not thank them, they are unlikely to try again, which will cut off your access to this invaluable information.

If the feedback was clear, specific and understandable, thanking them is the end of the process. If the feedback giver shared something you believe to be incorrect or do not agree with, now is not the time to point that out. Do that in a later interaction or, much better yet, show them they are mistaken by your subsequent actions, don’t tell them.

4. Ask to probe

It is also possible, however, that the feedback you received was less than totally clear or specific and, as a result, you are unclear what they think you should do to be more effective in the future. If this is the case, after you have genuinely thanked the person for their feedback, you can ask, “Would you be okay if I asked you a question or two about your feedback?”

If you get the answer “No” to this question, this is very clear feedback that you have not done steps 1-3 as effectively as you need to, in which case, loop back to step 1 and start again.

5. Probe to understand

Once they say, “Yes”, you can then ask whatever questions you need to turn their lower quality feedback into high quality feedback. Potential questions might include some or all of: “When you said I was not being supportive of you, what, specifically, did I do, or not do, that caused you to feel that?” “When was that?” “What would you prefer I do in that situation?”

Developing a receiving feedback mindset

It’s one thing to have an understanding of best practice receiving feedback, it’s quite another to pluck up the courage to actually engage in these behaviors in real life. So, this section is all about getting you to actually take your courage in your hands and reap the enormous benefits of developing yourself faster, developing others faster, and building stronger relationships.

Let’s be clear, accessing a broad range of others’ perspectives is the only effective way to understand our true strengths and development areas in the real world, instead of our more-often-than-not mistaken beliefs about how we think we are experienced by others.  We understand that this is uncomfortable territory for most people, especially bosses. So here are three realities to encourage you to embrace the practice of feedback from others.

1. All feedback is perception

Any individual piece of feedback says more about the giver than the receiver. We are all prey to the filters and biases that exist in our minds. As a result, any single piece of feedback you receive is clouded more by the giver’s filters than by what you actually did. All feedback is perception.

Hopefully, this will help you hear feedback, however critical, as ‘this person’s perception of a specific behavior’. Developing this perspective allows you to stay in that judgement-free mindset when you hear something that you believe is unfair or inaccurate. It is all just perception.

Because one piece of feedback is more indicative of the giver’s filters than your behavior, it is vitally important that you solicit feedback from multiple, varied sources. With feedback from multiple sources, you can then triangulate to evaluate what are the common themes that you are hearing from multiple perspectives that may warrant action.

2. People think what they think already

In our workshops, Mike will ask, “Think of an impression you have of me”.  After a few seconds comes the follow up, “Now think of a positive impression you have of me”. The laughter, or absence of it, can be a useful feedback data point about how the workshop’s progressing! Then comes the important question, “Irrespective of the thought you had, was it me asking the question that prompted you to come up with that impression for the first time, or was that impression already there and asking the question merely brought it back to the top of your mind?” We get everyone to choose which category they are in and then ask for a show of hands.

Routinely, more than 90% of participants say they had their impression already. Avoiding feedback does not mean that perceptions are not there; it just means that you don’t get to hear what people think of you. People have their opinions about you already, soliciting their feedback merely gives you the chance to hear what they think, so you can choose whether you want to do something about it or not. Your job in receiving feedback is to hear and accept that the other person has a particular opinion. Accepting that they have an opinion is quite different from agreeing with that opinion. Your job is to hear and accept their opinion, without judgement. You don’t have to agree with them.

3. You don’t always have to act on feedback

An additional misunderstanding about feedback is that if you listen to it, you are required to act on it. This is not true, especially since any single piece of feedback says more about the giver than the receiver. What is most important to people is being heard, not what you choose to do subsequently. You build your relationship with someone when they feel heard, which is achieved by you listening, without judgement. What actions you take as a result is up to you. We would recommend, however, that you reinforce the value you place on their feedback by circling back around and letting them know what you ultimately did or did not do (and why). What is most important, though, is the hearing, not your subsequent actions.

Asking for feedback

But how can you get better at receiving feedback when you work somewhere where the culture of sharing is ‘not how we do things around here’? You ask for it. Some ways of asking, however, are better than others. The best way to start the process is to ask a direct, but bounded question.

If you are asking for development feedback specifically, we would recommend, “What’s one thing you would like to see me do more of, less of, or differently?” If you are looking for both, try, “What is one thing I do that works well, and what is one thing you would like to see me do more of, less of, or differently?” If you get a mumble, or an “everything’s okay” response, follow up with, “I get that. And so that I can keep getting better, what’s one thing I could do more of, less of, or differently?” Of critical importance, clearly, is that you absolutely follow the best practice receiving feedback process when they then share their observation.

Once you’ve created the habit, you can then start asking for two or three or four items of feedback.

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