Feedback is Good (Even When it Feels So Bad)

by  Amy Kay Watson  |  Self Leadership
Feedback is Good (Even When it Feels So Bad)

What does “Performance Feedback” mean to you?  A painful waste of time, or a great opportunity? Both have been said about the same experience. How? I’ve learned it is possible to find value in even the most poorly delivered evaluation, no matter where it comes from. We can all process feedback so we can benefit from it rather than reject critical comments.

When I started facilitating workshops, my co-facilitator and I would distribute feedback forms and ask participants to tell us what their experience was like. Whenever I collected the sheets, my attention was pulled by a section where my performance was scored against my partner’s.

I knew it would cause me pain (and wasn’t very fair), but I craved a message that I was better than my partner had been. No matter how non-competitive I might believe myself to be, if you put me in a ratings race with anyone, I want to win.

My typically higher scores in “preparation” didn’t satisfy my craving. I studied the ratings until I proved to myself that my partner had won the day.

Why would anybody listen to me? I’d think. I’ll never achieve anything. While I indulged in this negative thinking, my productivity and sociability dropped away. But what’s the alternative?

Cultivate curiosity about what people are ‘reading’ from you

In their new book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen advocate for developing skills in learning from feedback “even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and, frankly, you’re not in the mood.” Off base or unfair? Are they suggesting you change everything that others want you to change?

No, but everything you do communicates something about you, and your message will have an audience. Feedback lets you know what your “audience” is receiving. Is the information they are receiving (about either your content or about yourself) the information you want to convey? The only way you’ll ever know is by attending to feedback and learning how to interpret the clues you receive.

Start where you are–wired for taking feedback the way you do

Each of us is wired to take feedback in our own particular way. It’s not unusual for feedback to knock you off your game if :

  • You feel it isn’t true (Truth)
  • The person delivering it is the wrong person to say that (Relationship), or
  • The feedback threatens your understanding of who you are (Identity)

This is where the workshop evaluations hit me the hardest: my sense of myself as a “really good facilitator.”

You will respond to feedback in your own signature way, characterized by how you feel and think generally and how you process feedback in particular. I was predisposed to dismiss positive feedback and to take negative feedback hard. I was also wired to recover more slowly from those hard hits.

Others might get a big boost from small compliments but aren’t so bothered by criticism. Their default wiring might mean they are resistant to teaching or change because they don’t take constructive criticism seriously enough.

Once you know your default wiring, you can predict and manage your reactions and then develop better skills for receiving and interpreting feedback.

I want to learn from your feedback, AND I want to be accepted for who I am

Grant yourself space to seek improvement

Fortunately I discovered a path away from the darkness of comparison and into a healthier place. As it turns out, my strategy was in line with recommendations in Thanks for the Feedback.

I found a way to focus on my own numbers and compare them to previous feedback. Finally, the drug-like attraction of comparing myself to others eased. My anxiety shifted to interest in my own development. Over time I saw my numbers improving relative to my earlier scores. And, I learned to trust myself instead of craving external validation as my facilitation skills improved.

You can set the stage for new growth and success by:

  1. Cultivating curiosity about what people are reading from you,
  2. Accepting and becoming familiar with your default settings for receiving feedback (your wiring), and
  3. Granting yourself permission to have room for improvement.

You do not have to choose between the joy of being accepted and the challenge of learning from feedback. Both are possible together. Loving yourself enough to accept feedback without fear is a wonderful practice.

“I want to learn from your feedback” image courtesy of Amy Kay Watson and Career Leadership Alignment.

What have you done to successfully improve the way you respond to feedback?

About The Author

Articles By amy-kay-watson
My name is Amy Kay Watson, and I am an ICF-certified leadership coach. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, I have helped leaders and teams get fantastic results, increase their influence, and prepare for the future.

What People Are Saying

John E. Smith  |  29 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Amy – very interesting post:)

I found my head nodding in agreement as I waded through your all-too-accurate description of the ways in which we sabotage ourselves through our reaction to feedback. We reject it or take it too seriously, we agonize when what others think does not sync with our self-perceptions, and generally do not take full advantage of the learning that is there to be had.

I think your summary message of “having it all” by opening up to feedback and being accepted for yourself is great, if hard to accomplish sometimes in real life.

The point about being curious about feedback is a very important element of all this, in my opinion. I have been blogging more often about curiosity, because it keeps popping up as a key component of leadership, coaching, learning, and relationship-building.

When next I receive feedback, I am going to consciously try to ask myself “Hmm, wonder why they say this about me?”, instead of my more normal responses of “How dare they say that about me!” and “They know my secret and I am destroyed”.

What I have already done has to do with being a training manager and facilitator for much of my professional life. We are more often talking, as you are doing quite nicely, about how we respond to feedback, but I think how we ask for that feedback is equally important.

It strikes me that feedback in an individual management or coaching context is a somewhat different animal than that for group meetings, training workshops, and the like.

I have become more adept at designing and analyzing questions and questionnaires which remove the personal and focus on objective and balanced measurement of attitudes, reactions, and perceptions around learning events, along with the impact of the training.

This started in earnest after a particularly difficult meeting, where a president insisted that we had failed in our attempts to boost the skill level of a group based on one very negative, very long and somewhat rambling criticism. In her mind, the words of the one outweighed shorter and calmer, but more positive statements by others, along with a hefty curve toward excellence on the quantitative side.

Well, you certainly have my thinking going this morning … thanks!


Amy Kay Watson  |  02 May 2016  |  Reply

Ah, John! I relate to everything in your post. (And totally agree, feedback on training forms is different from the rest… and yet, the skill set for receiving feedback well is the same.)

I love the story you share about the critical president. Do you believe his criticisms based on outcomes he’d outlined ahead of time as necessary for the meeting, or do you think this was a case of “Dear Abby” syndrome? (This is my fun name for what I’ve noticed to be an instinctive reaction to learning a better way to be — deciding that somebody *else* needs to change.)

John E. Smith  |  02 May 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Amy – thanks for your response.

Interesting question: I think SHE was more in the Dear Abby camp, along with a strong does of egotism that went way beyond healthy self-confidence.

Fascinating way to describe our all-too-common tendency to see the blame/need to change elsewhere, instead of glancing in the mirror more often:).


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