How to Respond to Feedback—Despite Your Cognitive Biases

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Think Big" by Grace Lordan. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Whom should you ask for feedback? What should you refuse to receive feedback about? Should you take negative feedback to heart?

Grace Lordan says that cognitive biases—the mental shortcuts that all humans take—can hinder you from achieving your goals. One way they do that is by preventing you from soliciting and responding well to feedback. But, if you want to reach your goals, you need wise insights from others around you.

Keep reading to learn how to respond to feedback without interference from your cognitive biases.

How to Respond to Feedback

Implementing your life and career plans well requires that you solicit valuable feedback and respond to it. She offers her advice on how to respond to feedback and how to get the right input in the first place. She recommends that you start by deciding what you won’t accept feedback on. This will ensure that you don’t change anything that’s central to your identity; for example, Lordan refused to alter her Irish accent despite advice to the contrary.

(Shortform note: In addition to deciding what aspects of your identity you won’t accept feedback on—like how you speak—consider limiting when you’ll accept feedback. One expert argues that while you should generally accept feedback when someone asks, “Can I give you feedback?” there are circumstances when you should say no—for instance, if you’re at a stage in a project when receiving feedback will slow you down. In that case, thank them for the offer, politely refuse by explaining why you’re not open to feedback at this time, then ask to hear some later if the situation calls for it.)

Once you’ve decided what you won’t accept feedback on, you can solicit feedback on other areas. Lordan suggests that you identify a few people in your life who will truthfully but supportively provide you with feedback. Then, ask them for their advice, focusing mostly on what areas you can improve. Writing down what they say will help you avoid attentional bias: This is the tendency to selectively remember information that’s relevant to what you’re thinking about when you initially hear it, and it can lead you to pay more attention to feedback that confirms your own perception of how well you’re doing in any given area.

(Shortform note: Other experts support Lordan’s recommendations for soliciting feedback. In Ultralearning, Young agrees that you should prioritize learning about areas in which you can improve, warning that praise is harmful to the learning process because it’s often a commentary on you as a person rather than constructive advice that you can apply to the learning process. Others also recommend writing down the feedback you receive, but this isn’t to help you avoid attentional bias as Lordan suggests; rather, keeping a record of the feedback you receive lets you evaluate whether you’re receiving the same type of feedback over time. If you are, you may need to change how you’re trying to improve, as what you’re doing isn’t working.)

What should you do if you receive negative feedback? If the feedback seems reasonable, Lordan urges you to respond to it. You have two cognitive biases that may tempt you to ignore it: the ostrich effect, a tendency to pretend that unpleasant information doesn’t exist, and the sunk cost fallacy, the tendency to make decisions based on the number of resources you’ve already and irrecoverably invested in an endeavor rather than considering the current and future costs and benefits objectively. But ignoring negative feedback won’t help you. Instead, take this feedback to heart and modify your actions accordingly.

(Shortform note: The authors of Thanks for the Feedback warn that you may respond poorly to negative feedback not because of the ostrich effect or the sunk cost fallacy but because of your relationship with the feedback-giver. For example, you might refuse the feedback based not on the merit of the feedback itself but because you don’t think the feedback-giver has the authority to tell you what to do. You might even switchtrack, which involves responding to a piece of feedback with a reciprocal piece of feedback that’s aimed at the feedback-giver rather than the feedback they’re providing. Just knowing that you have this tendency and watching out for it can help you avoid switchtracking so you take negative feedback to heart—no matter who’s providing it.)

But what if this negative feedback doesn’t seem reasonable? In that case, Lordan recommends that you ask others whether the feedback rings true. Ideally, select three people who are all strangers to one another so that they can’t influence each other. If all three agree, the feedback is likely accurate, so you should pay attention to it. But, if not, ignore it; it’s likely that the initial feedback-giver wasn’t objective and rather influenced by their own cognitive biases. If the same issue occurs repeatedly with the same feedback giver, stop asking them for advice. Their feedback may be a symptom of tall poppy syndrome: a phenomenon in which high-achieving people are resented or criticized.

What Others Say About Ignoring Negative Feedback

Other experts also recommend ignoring negative feedback that comes from only one person or from people you don’t respect. Often, such feedback has nothing to do with you and reflects more on the feedback-giver—maybe they’re having a bad day or just enjoy cutting others down. Additionally, ignore negative feedback that’s too unclear to be actionable or that reflects something you wanted; for example, if you wanted to write the world’s saddest song and receive criticism that it’s too sad, ignore that person because you got exactly what you were hoping for. 

That said, ignoring negative feedback is often easier said than done: Those experiencing tall poppy syndrome can experience mental health problems such as anxiety. So, if you’re seriously struggling, talk to a professional.)

Exercise: Seek Out Feedback

Create a plan for how to ask for and receive feedback well so that you can incorporate it without letting your cognitive biases get in the way.

  1. What is one issue that you’re currently facing that you’d like to receive feedback on?
  2. Name three people who you think would provide honest, supportive feedback on that issue.
  3. Briefly list some characteristics these three people have in common. Determine whether your list is sufficiently diverse—recall that asking a diverse group will provide you with the best possible advice.
  4. What would excite or upset you most to hear? Writing this down now will help you realize what feedback you might pay too much attention to due to attentional bias.
How to Respond to Feedback—Despite Your Cognitive Biases

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  • Why most of our attempts to transform our lives fail
  • How to overcome the cognitive biases that hold us back from our goals
  • How to take the necessary small steps to change your life long term

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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