The Art of Receiving Feedback

Feedback Globe Open Door Opinions Reviews Ratings CommentsEach year I seem to run across a book that I find myself recommending to–well–everyone. This year it’s Thanks for the Feedback, by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone. In the words of the authors, feedback is “how we learn from life.” Yet, we have a really hard time taking it in. We are quite good at finding all kinds of reasons to push back on feedback–and to see it as wrong. When others tell us (either gracefully or gracelessly) how they experience us or what they want us to do or be differently–we can find a myriad of ways to reject their feedback. (This is true even for those of us who in our heads can agree with the oft-taught premise that “feedback is a gift.”)

The answer to this dilemma, according to the authors, is to become adept at learning from and seeking feedback–even feedback that is given very poorly. In this way we develop our capacity for seeing and understanding ourselves more clearly–and in relationship to others. According to the authors, there are a few core skills we need to master to get there:

  • Recognizing and managing our resistance
  • Engaging in feedback conversations with confidence and curiosity
  • Finding insight in all feedback to help us grow
  • Learning to ask for what we need

The authors spend the majority of the book sharing a myriad of ways to manage ourselves in conversation so that we can build and exercise our capacity to receive feedback. And, while I’d recommend this book to anyone–I especially recommend it to leaders–including those who have focused their efforts on learning to give feedback. My suggestion is that learning to receive feedback is equally–if not more–important. On top of that--you’re bound to learn more about giving feedback as you learn to receive it well.

The Flavors of Feedback

In the summary that I wrote for Actionable Books, I talk about the three flavors of feedback–evaluation, appreciation and coaching and how we often get feedback that is different from what we want or need because we don’t distinguish between these types of feedback. That’s one big takeaway from the book. Negotiate the conversation to be in alignment–get the feedback you need.

The other core construct offered by the authors is that there are, when you boil it down, only three essential triggers for feedback–truth (the substance of the feedback triggers us), relationship (the giver of the feedback triggers us) and identity (the trigger hits a chord about who we are–and challenges our sense of our self.) Various different tools are provided to work with those different triggers.

Spot the Label

Feedback is often given in language that the authors call “labels”–or language this is too generic to be helpful. In fact, when we interpret this generic language (e.g., “you should be more confident”) on our own–we are likely to hear something different from what was intended. Our interpretation of being more confident might be radically different from what the feedback giver intended. So, while you might think the feedback mean that you should act as if you know an answer–the giver could have meant that you need to be confident in saying you don’t know something. Get the idea?

The antidote? Listen for the labels and ask questions–ask to understand what the label means, what examples the feedback giver can offer. Imagine how much more you’ll learn! The challenge in spotting the label is more about remembering to listen for labels. Once you start noticing you’re likely to find that it’s not that hard to ask the questions.


Working with switchtracking is one of my favorite tools–probably because I realized how much it happens (read: how much I do it!) and how much it shuts down learning. Switchtracking happens when you receive feedback–for example, your boss reproaches you for being late with a report you owe. Instead of responding to the feedback, you change the subject– either in your mind or in reality. You say (or in this case, more likely think:) “How can she expect me to get things in on time when I never have access to the tools I need. There’s always missing information, and I’m never sure she really means it when she gives me deadlines.”

If you continue down this path–you will not hear what is valid in the feedback–and they won’t hear what’s valid in your thinking. You’ll talk (or think) right past each other. No one has any opportunity to learn anything. You have successfully switched tracks.

Just like in spot the label, noticing when you’ve switchtracked (or when someone has switchtracked in response to you) is step one. Typically, you’ll want to deal first with the feedback and then find a way to address the second topic. Switchtracking can also be a clue that there is a relationship issue sitting beneath the feedback that is worthy of being attended to–and might be even more important than what the feedback seems to be about.

Receiving Feedback as an Act of Leadership

Now, it’s your turn. Start noticing how you respond when you are receiving feedback. Can you listen better to learn more? Are you wrongspotting? switchtracking? can you spot the label? (And yes, do try this at home.)

Our ability to learn from feedback is crucial. As a leader–as you begin to role model asking for feedback and receiving feedback, you will begin to shape an organization of people who know how to learn and grow together. You will support a culture where it is safe to speak up and say what is important. That’s why this book about feedback is also a book about how to create vibrant organizations. And why this work is so rich and so important for leaders at all levels.