Receiving feedback well... a question of give and take

Posted 25 June 2014 by
Claire Bremner, Senior Consultant at OPP

I'm reading a book at the moment – Thanks for the feedback: the science and art of receiving feedback well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen (Harvard Law School). I bought it on the strength of an article in the Saturday Guardian by Oliver Burkeman, which included a comment that really made me chuckle: "Tell me what I did well, tell me what I should do differently and don't confuse the two. If I wanted a sandwich, I'd go to the office canteen." If only receiving feedback was as straightforward as eating a sandwich!

In the leadership and management development literature, a lot has been written about giving feedback, yet very little space and importance is given to receiving feedback. This is surprising, considering that receiving feedback well is, arguably, harder than giving it well. Even the most effectively delivered feedback still relies on the willingness of the receiver to consider it and engage with it.

Stone and Heen refer to an internal tension when receiving feedback – the desire to feel we're learning and improving, constantly at war with the need to be appreciated for who we are. Even perfectly delivered constructive feedback can't meet both these needs at once. Thinking about this from a personality perspective, is it not possible that this tension will also be influenced by aspects of our personality type? The tension is likely to be tighter one way or the other depending on whether we prefer to be recognised for a specific job well done or appreciated for our contribution and impact on others.

With this in mind, Stone and Heen's suggestion that we need to separate appreciation, evaluation and coaching when giving or receiving feedback, makes even more sense. The concept of separating these different types of feedback seems a very simple one; and yet the feedback I received from senior leaders with whom I shared this nugget during a session on receiving feedback, suggested that this insight was a light bulb moment for them. "But how will I know whether someone wants evaluation, appreciation or coaching?" one of them asked. My response: "That's an excellent question – a good starting point would be to ask the individual." We shouldn’t assume that someone else will want evaluation/appreciation/coaching (delete as appropriate) simply because that's what strikes the right chord for us!

Stone and Heen's book also highlights a question that we would all do well to keep in mind and make good use of: "What's the one thing you see me doing that gets in my own way?"

For example, how often have you received a barrage of supposedly helpful feedback and by the end of it have thought "where on earth do I start?" When receiving feedback, acknowledge that the individual may have a number of things they want to share, but find a way to focus on the single most important issue. To make this easy, simply ask them what it is!

The one thing we do all have control over is how we respond. As this is not always easy, here are some of the tips and strategies I shared with the group of senior leaders referred to above:

Listening to feedback doesn't always mean we have to accept it. But instead of ‘wrong spotting’ we should look for clarity, and seek to understand more about where the other person is coming from. As we often say to participants on leadership development programmes: "You don't have to swallow everything we tell you whole – ponder it and assess for yourself what you can use and what you can learn from it".

So, although we may not agree with a particular piece of feedback, we don’t need to dismiss it out of hand. There could be an opportunity here to understand information that someone else has and that we currently lack. Interpretations are still information, even if we might not accept them as truth or facts.

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