Listen, breathe, process: how to receive feedback

Let’s just say you’re chatting with your friends or family, and you start talking about something you like or don’t like; you might  begin to point out your reasons why, or what could be done better, or where there are areas of opportunity that are specific to a set subject, item, or event.

Now, let's turn this around and direct these critiques toward ourselves. Not super fun, right?. But we still end up doing it, and it may not come as a huge surprise to find out that being our own critic isn’t as efficient as we might think. This is especially true when it comes to being our own critic in the workplace, so it’s safe to say this may not be the path we want to take regarding feedback.

First, let’s talk about how we receive feedback. If it’s good feedback, we may  feel prideful or happy hearing it.We may even think to ourselves “With this, I can  take it to the next level!”. That’s because good feedback often results in having a good attitude, which is something to be encouraged. However, when receiving feedback that is not good, it can be a “hard pill to swallow” and if we don’t receive it well, our reactions may be rash and can get us in trouble.

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, the founders of Triad Consulting Group and a Lecture on Law at Harvard, wrote  a book called “Thanks for the Feedback”. In it, they showcase that when people are given feedback, they manifest three types of triggers; Truth Triggers, Relationship Triggers, and Identity Triggers. They also define the people who are giving feedback  as “Givers”, so let’s just keep referring to them as such moving forward.Personally, I’ve manifested all three of these triggers almost every time I’ve been given feedback, but  it was only recently that learned these triggers even existed and that they are quite normal.

So, let's talk triggers…

  1. Truth Triggers: These emerge from the feedback itself and are considered to be “unhelpful” or “unconstructive”. So, once we get feedback, we may think “What are they talking about?” or “That’s not something I’d do.” We might even think “Why are they telling me this? Don’t they realize this isn’t helpful?” Well, hopefully you’ll feel comforted knowing that these are all very normal reactions. When we get this kind of feedback, we can even feel  betrayed or wronged by the person giving us feedback.
  2. Relationship Triggers: These focus on the person giving the feedback and reflect how you feel towards the person providing it. With these triggers, any  feedback given can become clouded because we are thinking more about the person giving us feedback then the feedback itself. We may say things like “What kind of a person would say those things to me?” or even “Who do they think they are, they don’t know. Why would they be the one telling me these things?” Suddenly, the “Giver” starts to lose credibility and those receiving the feedback are paying much closer attention to how they’re being treated.
  3. Identity Triggers: These are the internal battles or conversations we have with ourselves after receiving feedback. When identity triggers happen, we start telling ourselves our own story, or set “wildfires”in our minds, causing us to over think and next thing we know, our imagination gets away from us and the worries start to set in. We may be filled with anger or break down crying. That’s because we’re humans and we’re not “wired” to process feedback in the same way.. This is one of the most important things to understand when giving or receiving feedback, both in your professional and personal lives.

There may be a time where we’re receiving feedback and our guts tell us that it’s not going to go well, and that’s okay. We have every right to feel the way we feel and we should never dishonor our feelings, because, frankly, it won’t solve anything or make the feedback go away. So really, we should embrace our feelings, even if they may not feel good in the moment. Learning to process our feelings could inevitably help to lift the weight of not knowing how we are doing or help us open up to receiving feedback better in the future.

If receiving feedback is hard for you, I’d recommend the following:

  • Listen and “take it in” later. Your feelings are important, but when you are receiving feedback during, let’s say an important meeting, it’s essential to listen. This shows the “Giver” that you’re  willing and interested in hearing what they have to say.
  • Ask questions. The more you know about the feedback, the more you can use it to improve. Try asking how the feedback was driven and where it’s being applied. This will be helpful when you need to work on improving yourself based on the specific feedback being given.
  • Keep an open mind. Focus on the fact that the feedback being given is in your best interest and that the person giving the feedback wants to see you succeed. This helps in accepting the feedback, that way you can process everything in the moment and go back and think about how to work on it later.

One of the most important elements of receiving feedback is understanding. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Well, that’s not always the case. Sometimes “understanding” isn’t our immediate response to feedback, because we’re too busy being blinded by  the “wrong things” we had pointed out to us during it. That’s okay though. You may need some alone time to process everything, and you should take that time. Whatever method you choose to use when processing feedback, just make sure it feels natural, comfortable, and healthy.

If all else fails, just remember: listen, breathe and process.