Do you often receive feedback? How do you respond to it? Why do you think feedback is so important?
Feedback is an important element of personal and professional development but few people know how to receive feedback effectively. In their book Thanks for the Feedback, communication experts Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen provide some actionable tips on how to have a feedback conversation on the receiver’s end.
In this article, we’ll look at specifics of how to have a feedback conversation: the general arc of the conversation, and major elements you need to touch upon to be successful.
How to Have a Feedback Conversation
Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, feedback conversations have three parts:
- The open: where you get aligned with the other person
- The body: where you’ll discuss the content of the feedback
- The close: where you’ll clarify commitments, expectations, and follow-up
Below, we’ll discuss some of their tips on how to receive feedback in each of the three stages of the conversation.
1) The Open
When you receive feedback, whether it’s a formal evaluation or a more off-hand comment, open your discussion with the other person by getting aligned.
Opening Questions and Tone
The opening is where you’ll get aligned with the other person as to the purpose and tone of the conversation. Ask yourself some questions to get on the same page as your feedback-giver:
- Is this feedback? Sometimes feedback can sneak up and surprise you. Other times you were expecting it as part of a more formal process. It may feel unnatural at first to tell yourself, “Okay, this is feedback,” but doing so will help prevent your triggers from being activated.
- What kind of feedback is this? Before you react, pause and figure out if this feedback is evaluation, coaching, or appreciation.
- What is the giver’s intent? Are they offering coaching, but really they’re upset about something you’ve done? Be alert for mixes (coaching plus evaluation), be aware of your own purposes (are you looking for coaching rather than appreciation?), and be prepared to talk through any differences in intent.
- Who has the final word? In some conflicts, there will be one party who is ultimately in charge of deciding who’s feedback prevails. When your manager gives you a suggestion, is it a suggestion or a requirement? Clearing this up ahead of time can prevent confusion later.
- Is this feedback negotiable? Find out up front if an evaluation is final or if there’s something you can do to change it.
Set the tone of the conversation close to the start of it. Research shows that the first few minutes of a conversation are crucial to setting the tone for the rest of it, and that productive outcomes depend in great part on the receiver’s ability to course-correct a negative conversation. If a person comes at you with a negative start, resist the urge to react instinctively. Pause and ask questions to ground the conversation: “Can we take a step back? Let’s make sure we’re on the same page here.”
Course-correcting is not about addressing the content of the feedback; it’s about clarifying the goal of the conversation. Staying aligned with the other person on how you have the conversation will allow the what of the conversation to be better addressed.
2) The Body
The body of the conversation is where the bulk of the discussion will happen. This is the content part of the talk. As you navigate this phase, focus on:
- Completing the picture
Each of these is integral to the process of understanding. We’ll go through these one by one, but since conversations are rarely ordered, don’t worry about staying in order during your discussion. It’s okay to jump around between these elements as you go, just as long as you hit each one.
Listen to your internal voice. Pay attention to the running commentary of your thoughts and feelings and watch out for triggers and questions that come up. Your internal voice can drown out the other person’s actual words if you get caught up in your reactions to something she said. She may be talking about point number two, but you miss it because you’re still thinking about point number one: “Wait, what was that? How can she think that?” Ask your inner voice what it’s really after and what it’s afraid of so that you can address those issues properly and remain open and curious to the other person’s feedback.
Let the other person know you hear her. Ask focused questions to let your feedback-giver know that you are taking her input seriously. Allowing her to feel heard validates her efforts and makes her more likely to turn around and listen to you when it’s your turn to talk, and far more likely to accept whatever decision you make.
Don’t let your questions get hot, though. Focus on seeking information and keep implied judgments out of your words and tone. “Are you stupid?” and “How could you think that?” are both framed as questions but are actually accusations. Avoid sarcasm (“I love hearing what I’m doing wrong. What else do you have?”) or cross-examination (“Well okay, then, how do you explain…?”) Instead, replace these with questions ruled by thoughtfulness instead of emotion: “What you’re saying now seems inconsistent with what you suggested last week. This isn’t clear to me.”
Circle back to be sure you’re properly understanding: “Are there any aspects I’m not seeing?”
If feedback is going to be useful in any way, you need to understand what the giver is telling you in specific detail. When you receive coaching, have her clarify her advice. Ask yourself if you’d know how to follow her advice if you wanted to. A statement like “Give a great speech,” is too vague to be helpful. Ask her for specifics: “What makes a speech great? Can you give me some examples, and what you liked about them? Or speeches that fell flat?”
When you receive evaluation, ask her to clarify the consequences and her expectations. It’s easy to get caught up reacting to an evaluation and forget to probe it for more meaning. Ask how it will affect you, what the next step is, and what you need to do specifically to meet expectations.
3. Complete the Picture
As you receive feedback, it’s important that you complete the picture the other person is painting by submitting your own inputs for inclusion: your observations, interpretations, and feelings. This is not about persuading her that you’re right. It’s about completing the picture so all the pieces are on the table and you can effectively solve the puzzle together.
As you offer your own insights, be mindful of trigger traps that can color your discussion. Don’t defensively wrong-spot; don’t switchtrack; don’t exaggerate your points.
People who are excellent feedback navigators have the ability to manage the conversation as they are in it. To become one of these people yourself, try to diagnose and describe communication problems as they come up during the conversation so that you can propose solutions in real time. Being hyper-aware of how you are having the discussion helps you avoid triggers.
For example: “We’re talking about two issues here (diagnose). You’re telling me you have a problem with what I did, and I’m telling you that your anger was an unreasonable response (describe). We need to talk about what I did, but we also need to talk about the way you bring up problems because your reaction becomes a problem in itself. Which do you want to talk about first (propose)?”
These statements can sound awkward and unusual, which, again, is precisely why they are effective: They stop the flow of the reaction-to-reaction dynamic of a typical conversation.
3) The Close
Most conversations skip the step of closing properly, assuming that both parties know what the other person expects them to do. This can lead to problems later when each becomes disappointed in a lack of progress or discouraged by unrealistic expectations.
When closing, be explicit about the next steps and the expectations moving forward. This does not necessarily mean agreeing to changes. It can mean simply committing to reflection and setting up another time to talk: “I’m going to give this some thought. Let’s touch base again tomorrow.”
When wrapping up, address:
- Action plan: Who is going to do what specifically when you each leave the meeting?
- Benchmarks: How will progress be measured?
- Consequences: What happens if the benchmarks are not met?
- Procedure: How are you going to approach this topic again?
- Strategies: If you’re not coming up with solutions that directly solve your conflict, what strategies will you each adopt to accommodate the other successfully?
Responding When You Still Disagree
At times you may fully understand a person’s feedback, where it comes from and what advice they’re suggesting, and yet you’ll still disagree with it. There’s nothing wrong with that: Knowing exactly why you disagree can, in and of itself, be helpful. To move forward when you still disagree, simply acknowledge the feedback and how it affects you.
- Allow the giver to feel heard.
- Be honest about how the feedback makes you feel and think: “That’s hard to hear”; “I had no idea”; “That is not at all how I thought I came across.”
- Leave the door open for further explanation and understanding, acknowledging that you may come to accept it upon further understanding.
The most important thing in closing, and in fact, in every step, is to make sure both you and the other person are crystal clear about what each is trying to say and what each expects to happen next.
There are times when it’s okay to set limits as to when or even if you accept feedback. In fact, being able to say “no” is an important part of receiving feedback—if you always say “yes,” then you are not meaningfully interpreting it, but instead are merely allowing someone else to make your decisions for you.
Further, sometimes refusing feedback is part of the process of accepting it: declining it may give you a needed pause during which you can do your own reflection and come up with your own insights.
Three Levels of Boundaries
There are three levels of boundaries you can set when you have decided that for one reason or another, you are not open to receiving feedback at this time. These span the spectrum from soft denials to hard ultimatums.
- Thanks but no thanks: At the soft end, you can tell the other person that you will listen to her advice and consider her insights, but you are not committing to taking it. Although this may seem obvious, sometimes a feedback-giver does not consciously grasp that her advice is optional. Explicitly stating it can establish those boundaries, making it easier for her to accept when you, say, don’t choose the caterer she recommended.
- Not now: In the middle of the spectrum, you can let the giver know that you don’t want feedback about that topic at this time (or maybe, ever). Maybe you know that you need to get your six-year-old daughter out of the diapers she wears at night, but night-training means your own sleep will be disrupted constantly until the process is over, and you just started a new job. Now’s not the time, and there’s nothing more to be said about it.
- Not ever: At the hard end of the spectrum lies an ultimatum: “Stop, or I will leave the relationship.” There may be aspects of your personality or behavior that you just don’t feel are up for negotiation, and you may reach a point where the other person just has to accept you as you are, or the two of you need to go your own ways: “Yes, I want to marry you, but I won’t move in with you before that. Your insistence on it infringes on who I feel I am.”
When Are Boundaries Needed?
It can be difficult to determine when it’s okay to refuse feedback. How do we know when declining feedback is appropriate, or when it’s just an excuse to shut down legitimate and helpful advice? There’s no hard-and-fast formula for determining this, but there are a number of questions you can ask yourself to figure out if a boundary is needed in a particular context or relationship.
- Does the feedback attack your character, instead of your behavior? If someone says, “You’re lazy,” rather than “Here’s something that would help,” it’s a clue to a deeper problem in the relationship.
- Is the feedback incessant? If someone is giving you constant, unsolicited advice, it can become more destructive than helpful, making you question your every move and making you feel constantly judged.
- Is there always “one more thing”? If the other person is always ready with one more thing for you to change, the real issue might be her need to control you.
- Does the feedback-giver threaten your relationship? Does she imply that if you don’t take her suggestion for a caterer, that you’ll ruin your relationship? Tying something small to something big in this way takes away your autonomy while pretending to allow you to choose.
- Does the feedback come with a threat rather than a warning? A warning is an explanation of consequences (“If you’re late to work again, I’m going to have to let you go.”). A threat is a warning meant to induce fear (“If you’re late one more time, you’ll never work in this town again.”)
- Are you the one who always has to change? If you are always the one who has to adjust, give in, or apologize, then both you and the other person are missing a piece of the puzzle.
- Are your views and feelings being shut out? This may be the most important piece of the dynamic. Is the other person listening to you and trying to see things from your perspective? Is she modifying her advice and insights based on how it affects you? If the conversation is not a two-way street, it’s an indication of a larger problem.
How to Turn Away Feedback
If you do decide to turn away feedback, be clear and firm about it.
- Be transparent: Tell the other person you are refusing her feedback. If you don’t say this out loud, she may conclude you are ignoring her.
- Be appreciative, but firm: Let her know that you understand her good intentions and why she’s offering this advice. This allows her to feel heard. But don’t back down from the boundary you’ve set.
- Redirect unwanted coaching: If someone is offering you unwanted advice, you may be able to address her concerns by allowing her to give you different advice. If your future mother-in-law insists on choosing your caterer, she may just want to be involved in your wedding preparations. Perhaps let her choose the florist instead.
- Use “and” instead of “but”: Instead of saying, “I’ve heard what you said, but I’m going to try something else,” use the word “and”: “I’ve heard what you said, and I’m going to try something else.” This highlights the complexity of the situation: You’re not dismissing what she’s said, but you are making a different decision.
- Be specific about your boundary: Don’t just tell someone to “back off.” This is not only too vague to be helpful, but it will also trip all kinds of triggers in the other person. Be clear about exactly what you are asking and for how long.
- Get her agreement: Don’t assume she agrees to your boundary. Ask for her to commit. (“Can you agree to that?”)
- Address consequences: Let her know what will happen if she can’t or won’t respect your boundaries. Let her know she is free to choose either way, but that you are also free to make adjustments to your relationship based on her choice.
Be considerate: If you decide to reject someone’s advice and feedback, understand that there will be consequences from that. As in any system, your choice affects those around you. It’s important for you to be aware of this effect so that you can be sensitive to it. Acknowledge that your decision will impact those around you. Let others know what they can do to manage their interactions with your decision, and discuss solutions together. If you’ve decided not to move out of your house into assisted living despite your children’s objections, discuss what you can all do to manage that decision: Can you modify the house for safety? Hire someone to check in on you daily? Get an alert system?
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- How to better receive feedback, rather than just giving it
- Why people tend to respond negatively towards feedback
- How to successfully incorporate feedback into your life