Why do we resist feedback and lack the courage to ask for it? Receiving what we see as criticism is unpleasant at best and confidence deflating at worst. So, we choose not to create opportunities for what we assume will be negative feedback from others. We know how hard it is to give ourselves feedback, but it can be overwhelming, even paralyzing, to receive it from others. As humans, we are vulnerable, which is what makes us human. Feedback from others, whether accurate or not — brings to the surface what we don’t want to admit — that each of us is a work in progress.
If we see feedback as something useful that can support our process of getting better, we won’t be so threatened by it. As not all feedback is given with the intent to support or help us, we need to be discerning about the feedback we allow in. The best type of feedback fosters our growth, so knowing how to receive feedback, when to invite it in, or respectfully hear it but choose no action, requires careful self-examination.
When was the last time you asked someone for feedback? If you recognize that you might not be making it safe for others to tell you the truth, consider following the steps below to make it safer:
While you can’t guarantee that everyone has your best interest in mind, you’re far more likely to generate good will and build trust if you assume good intent, if you believe people are doing the best they can, and they sincerely want you to succeed. When you show up with an open heart, you send a signal that says, “You’re safe to share.”
Assuming good intent makes it safer for you to value others’ perspectives and gives you more confidence to seek feedback. Successful businesses and organizations do this step frequently. Consider how many times you get an email, text, or survey requesting feedback after purchasing a product or service. Imagine if, as individuals, we had our own customer service department to follow up and survey those we interact with daily.
How we ask for feedback can shape the feedback itself and how others choose to give it. One way to discourage people from giving you feedback is surprising them with a request. Let them know beforehand you’ll be asking for feedback later, especially if it’s the first time you’ve asked for feedback.
We also make it unsafe for others to give feedback if we become defensive (anger, excuses, justification, deflecting, etc.). While we need to choose what feedback to pay attention to and what to ignore, we must recognize that rejecting feedback can come at a cost. If you defend yourself or deflect feedback, you signal that you’re not really interested in feedback. And, if you ask for feedback in a way that invites only positive feedback (manipulating someone to say what you want to hear) you’re probably not making it safe either.
Continually seeking feedback to validate your self-worth isn’t the goal, and others will either shy away from offering feedback or be disingenuous because the cost of being truthful is simply too high. In either case, getting defensive or continually seeking validation, you’re not likely to get better.
Sharing feedback isn’t always easy, so when people provide it, it’s important to thank them. As we put our ego aside, mitigating the need to be right, we allow our self-confidence to strengthen and our capacities to grow. Expressing thanks sends a signal that we welcome and will continue to look forward to receiving feedback.
If it’s not safe for others to tell us the truth, not only will we never improve, but we won’t get better at deepening our relationships. That doesn’t mean we must act on all feedback. It’s critical to be clear about the values we stand for, and have a long-term vision of who we want to become so that we are prepared to compare someone’s “truth” against what we feel and know is most true for us.
We all have moments of insecurity and self-doubt – and getting feedback can shake even the most confident person. Be patient and gentle with yourself when you feel yourself retreating or wanting to fight back. In addition to sincerely seeking and evaluating feedback, you can also help people know how to give you feedback.
Sometimes, feedback is not about you, especially when it’s given in angry, reactive ways. It is not someone telling the “truth,” but someone having a bad day and taking it out on you. No one needs to accept verbal abuse disguised as feedback. If someone is angry and harsh with their feedback, you could suggest they take a few moments (or hours or days), and then share when they aren’t feeling so charged.
It doesn’t do any good to ask for feedback if you have no intention of acting on it. While we don’t need to implement all feedback, not acting on it or not explaining why we may not act on it is worse than not asking for it in the first place. While people may start to feel safe when you ask them for feedback, they will know they are safe when they see you take their feedback seriously. You help them feel safe by writing the feedback down, demonstrating you are seriously considering what they’ve shared, and by your sharing how you will implement what you’ve learned.
Implementing feedback takes time. The most entrenched problems we face require a concerted effort to remedy them. Even though feedback might feel like a momentary failure, receive it graciously. And, understand that any meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight.
Todd Davis is EVP, Chief People Officer for FranklinCovey and author of Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work.