How to not be defensive when receiving feedback

One of the earliest lessons we learn when we enter the workforce is that feedback is a critical component of our development.  Feedback is a gift that helps us identify our strengths and opportunities to improve.

Receiving feedback graciously is an important skill to develop.  If we don’t make the experience for the person giving us feedback a pleasant one, they are less likely to give us candid and direct feedback in the future which is only to our own detriment.  

However, human nature works against us in developing this skill.  When we receive constructive feedback, we naturally feel attacked.  The pesky amygdala part of our brain takes over and we go into fight-or-flight mode.  We’re no longer listening and treat the feedback giver as our adversary.

In addition, it’s particularly hard to listen to feedback when we disagree with it.  Let’s face it – you’re going to receive feedback that is based on misunderstanding, incomplete or incorrect information from time to time.  

So how do you make sure you are a gracious receiver of feedback in the midst of fight-or-flight mode and legitimate disagreement?

Here are some steps that may help:

  1. Listen actively – Let the feedback giver talk without interruption and then play back to them what you just heard in your own words.
  2. Thank the person giving you feedback – Even when you completely disagree with the feedback, you can be thankful that the person has taken the uncomfortable step to deliver a difficult message.  The easier route would have been to complain or gossip to someone else.  Your positive response also builds trust with this person and builds your personal brand that you receive feedback well. 
  3. Acknowledge the portions of the feedback that resonate – Listen carefully to the full content of the message being delivered and call out the parts you agree with.  Being vulnerable in this way goes a long way in making the experience for the feedback giver a good one.  It also signals your genuine desire to improve and that the whole exercise won’t be a waste of time.  
  4. Ask questions to gain clarity – For the portions of the feedback you don’t agree with, allow for the possibility that you may be the one who misunderstands or has incomplete or incorrect information.  Ask clarifying questions that work back down the ladder of inference without being accusatory.
  5. Apologize sincerely (when appropriate) – When your actions have hurt someone’s feelings (whether or not you feel their reaction is reasonable), you can always apologize for how you made them feel (and mean it!).
  6. Share your perspective – Only after you have achieved the goodwill of steps 1 through 5 should you offer to share your own perspective and provide missing information or correct any misinformation.  Use this opportunity to express what was going on emotionally below the surface for you.  When the feedback is about an interaction (“you were rude to Tanya”), you can provide valuable insight by sharing what you were feeling (“I was worried the meeting I was facilitating wouldn’t end on time when I cut her off”).
  7. Share what you will do to follow up (when appropriate) – If there is a specific action you need to take, share your commitment to follow through with a specific timeframe.  If you are committing to improving behavior, ask the feedback giver to provide ongoing feedback to help you.

An absolute no-no: Don’t use this interaction as an opportunity to give the feedback giver your own feedback.  This is classic defensive behavior and is unlikely to be helpful.  Anything you say will likely be interpreted as unfair retaliation.  If you do have genuine feedback to share, wait for an opportunity in the future to give it.

Finally, receiving feedback graciously doesn’t mean you have to agree with all of it or take action on it.  I liken it to receiving a Christmas sweater from your grandmother.  You should sincerely thank her for the gift (after all, she thought of you and went out of her way to buy you something).  And then you look at it…it is a Christmas sweater after all!  You shouldn’t feel obligated to wear a sweater you don’t like.

Keeping in mind that you always get to decide what you do with the feedback will hopefully help you be gracious and keep the amygdala at bay!