My post on the Feedback Sandwich technique prompted a few readers to ask questions like this:
Most articles on feedback focus on how to deliver it more effectively, but what about when you’re the one on the receiving end? Do you have any tips on how to be better at receiving feedback?
Ah . . . that’s a good one. And a tough one.
Speaking for myself, I love getting criticism and feedback, and am completely open to receiving it any time, any place…as long as it’s positive and complimentary. When it’s not . . . um . . . let’s just say that I’m not quite as receptive. Nor are most people.
Why is that? Why is feedback—whether it’s negative feedback or constructive criticism—so tough for most people to take? When we receive feedback that we don’t agree with, the tendency is to get defensive, to explain, to make excuses, to try to invalidate it, to deny it, to be offended by it, and even to resent the person giving it.
Your Brain at Work
I just finished reading an amazing book, Your Brain at Work, by David Rock, who explains the neuroscience behind why we react emotionally (and sometimes irrationally) to feedback that we don’t agree with or don’t want to hear.
In brief, our primitive brains are biologically wired to perceive feedback as a threat. Not to get too technical or neurological, but the amygdala—the fear center (referred to often by author Seth Godin as our “lizard brain”)—intuitively senses feedback as a threat and does anything possible to avoid it.
Rock compares the feelings that feedback triggers to that sick-to-the-stomach, hair-standing-up-on the-back-of-your-neck fear you might experience when walking alone down a dark, scary alley and hearing footsteps quickly sneaking up behind you. The sensation that we are about to be attacked. The feeling that our lives are in mortal danger. That’s what feedback can feel like. And when we receive negative feedback, we are, in fact, at risk, especially when we feel our confidence, our self-esteem, and our sense of self are under attack.
It’s the “fight, flight, or freeze” response in action. That’s why, when receiving negative feedback (or sometimes even positive and constructive feedback), we may respond by lashing out in defensiveness, running (or storming) away, or standing there, speechless, in shock and disbelief.
The Five Threats
David Rock created a now-classic acronym, SCARF, that clearly and effectively captures the ways that feedback may threaten us:
Status: Getting feedback may feel as if we are being spoken down to and that our status or position relative to that other person is being threatened. A boss’s saying something as simple as, “I need to see you in my office” can trigger a feeling of heart-stopping terror . . . and make you feel two feet tall.
Certainty: When we receive feedback, especially if it is unexpected, it could create feelings of uncertainty and confusion. You thought you did such a great job on that presentation, but now the feedback has made you doubt your abilities and shaken your self-confidence.
Autonomy: When we receive feedback that puts into question the decisions and choices we’ve made, not only might we start to doubt our own judgment, but we may now fear that our freedom and empowerment might be taken away.
Relatedness: When we receive feedback from someone, it could impact our relationship with that person. “How could you say that? I thought you liked me. I thought you were on my side. Is that what you REALLY think of me?”
Fairness: Have you ever received feedback from someone and felt misjudged, misunderstood, or unfairly evaluated? If you’ve had the reaction “That’s just not fair. That’s not true. You’ve got me all wrong!” then you know how it feels to have your sense of fairness threatened.
So, now that we know WHY feedback might be perceived as a threat to our personal well-being, and that it’s a completely natural, neurological, biological response, what can we do about it?
Making Feedback Work for You
1. Try to keep an open mind, consider the source and the intention, and keep things in perspective. Don’t react or overreact; just take the feedback in. With the self-awareness you now have about WHY feedback feels like an attack, it might be a little easier (over time, with practice!) to be more open to receiving the feedback objectively.
2. Though it’s natural to react emotionally (especially when under stress), try not to get defensive. Even though it may feel like you are being attacked when the feedback’s coming from multiple people simultaneously, be open to the feedback, let it settle in, and then decide what you want to do with it.
3. Feedback is a source of knowledge. Though some things may be difficult to hear or to admit, keep in mind the value of knowing. If you were about to go on stage to deliver a presentation, and you had a “Kick Me” sign on your back, toilet paper stuck to your shoe, and your fly was open, wouldn’t you be better off knowing than not knowing? At least now you can do something about it.
4. When you get vague, general, ambiguous feedback (e.g., “You need to do much better next time”), seek out specifics. Ask for suggestions on how you might improve. Confusing feedback is worse than no feedback at all. You could even request that the person start with something positive before getting to the constructive criticism. Encourage them to use the Feedback Sandwich with you!
5. Change your mindset about feedback. Reframe it as a developmental opportunity rather than a criticism of you personally. Recognize that while the tendency (basic human nature) is to focus on the negative, it is equally important to validate your strengths and leverage what you’ve done well.
6. After receiving feedback, take some time to let it sink in, and think strategically on what to do with it and where to go from here. Remember: Unless something is a real emergency that is causing serious, immediate problems, you don’t have to change or fix everything—or anything—overnight! In fact, it’s almost impossible. Continuous improvement is an on-going process and a lifelong journey. And feedback is a mechanism that will help you to stay on course and moving ever-forward. Without it, how will you know how well you’re doing?
There’s an old saying that “Feedback is a gift.” And like any gift we receive, we can choose to toss it in the trash, or we can appreciate the thought behind it. Perhaps when we unwrap that gift, when we have a chance to sit alone with it and ponder it, we’ll find a nugget of truth hidden somewhere inside that box; one that we need to seriously consider.
And if feedback is, indeed, a gift, the polite thing to say to the feedback giver is, simply, “Thank you,” as you would to any gift giver.
So the next time someone approaches you with some feedback and says “Let’s talk turkey,” be open to what they have to say.