• Andrew Gordon-Kirsch

Receiving Constructive Feedback

You’ve just received constructive feedback from a colleague--a boss, a peer, a direct report. How do you respond? Here are a few pointers for taking it in when you might otherwise want to erupt, shut down, or run out of the room.

Ground yourself

Many times feedback conversations are scheduled in advance. If you know developmental feedback is coming, take a moment to prepare. Before entering the conversation, take a few deep breaths or a moment of meditative silence. Try this technique called “meshing” from the Rockwood Leadership Institute: Plant your feet on the ground, close your eyes, and imagine you’re a porous screen like mesh. Visualize the other person’s words flowing through you rather than hitting you (and likely pushing your buttons). Notice what it feels like in your body, then maintain that mindset as you engage in discussion. When I’m able to access the desired mental state before entering a conversation I find I’m able to take things less personally and (re)act with more integrity.

Say thank you

It’s not easy to give feedback. Many of us are conditioned to hold back our true opinions out of fear of jeopardizing the relationship. Showing gratitude for the feedback giver signals maturity and indicates that you are approachable in the future. Saying thank you can also help de-escalate tensions in heated situations.

Remember it’s about your behavior, not about you as a person

Don’t make the same mistake I did! Once upon a time I was four months into a new role and I was just beginning to feel more confident in it. Then I received feedback from a supervisor. In a mere 20-minute conversation I managed to spin a novella about my ineptitude, that not only was I incompetent but my personality--my essence--was the reason for this subpar performance. Therefore, there was nothing I could do to improve or rectify my situation. Resist the urge to internalize constructive feedback or interpret it as a judgement about your character. This kind of thinking leaves little room for a growth mindset. Instead, try to remember that the other person is responding to external behavior rather than the core of who you are. Another way to think about it is that they are raising the issue because they want to continue working with you. They care about your relationship.

Take responsibility for the impact of your actions

Our intentions--benign as they may be--don’t always match up with the impact of our actions. As I mention in my piece about giving feedback, feedback is a gift, a window into how our behavior lands with others. If, through the feedback process, you learn that you hurt the other person, this is an opportunity to apologize and rebuild trust. A simple apology can go a long way to make someone feel heard. This is a basic human need and is often at the source of resentment and other manifestations of interpersonal tension. Resist the urge to explain your side of the story. Explanations will probably sound like defensiveness or excuses to the feedback giver’s ears. Instead, hear them out and say thank you.

Ask for clarification

It sounds obvious but is worth saying: If the purpose of a feedback conversation is for someone to convey the impact of your actions, it’s imperative that you understand a) what you did or said that rubbed them the wrong way and b) the impact your behavior had on them. Ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand the context, your behavior, the impact, and what they’re requesting you do differently in the future (if applicable). Pro tip: Don’t mask an explanation in the guise of a question! Lean in with true curiosity to understand the other person’s perspective and experience.

Agree on a timeframe to revisit the issue

Constructive feedback conversations are rarely one-and-done affairs. Checking back in after a few weeks to evaluate progress not only helps you know you’re on the right track, it also helps the other person see you as capable of growth rather than stuck in your ways. It gives you an opportunity to demonstrate you’re serious about changing your behavior. Revisiting the issue also holds the other person accountable for being partners in your development--relationships are two-way streets. If you received feedback about committing a microaggression or another form of discrimination, it might make sense to enlist an accountability buddy, someone who you can check in with periodically about your progress that is not the person who gave you the feedback.

Put the feedback in context (afterwards)

You can think of feedback as data. Does the datapoint you just received fit with or contradict data from past feedback conversations? Often a piece of feedback fits into a trend over time--behavior change is tough and doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes a piece of feedback is an outlier you can disregard. Did this piece of feedback take you by surprise? If so, perhaps this is an opportunity to ask a trusted colleague for their perspective. Returning to my warning story, after I spun out from my supervisor’s feedback, I shared the conversation with a colleague. Not only did she help me put the feedback in context of a team collaboration meltdown (i.e., while I did hold responsibility, it wasn’t entirely my fault), but she also shared that our supervisor is known to be extra harsh and it’s possible he just wasn’t having a good day. This helped me be able to step back from the feedback, sort out the useful pieces, and determine a path forward.

Ultimately, you get to decide what to do with constructive feedback. Taking these steps before, during, and after the feedback conversation will help you respond with confidence and integrity. And if you haven’t already, read my piece on giving feedback for techniques that will help you land your message with greater precision.