Seven Tips for Giving and Receiving Meaningful Feedback

by Jean Marie Johnson

My husband calls me the Queen Of Organization, the "QOO." He usually means it in a good way, though he's perplexed by my ability to create order from what he would call "chaos." My penchant for organization may be rooted in my DNA, but that's only half the story. I know that it had its kick start in the fifth grade when my for-the-moment BFF, "Valerie," raised a critical eyebrow and asked "Why is your desk such a mess?" It was true. I had pencil stubs and crumpled paper crammed in with books and other "stuff." I was humiliated. Crushed to the core, I cleaned up my act and never looked back.

Feedback that's Hard to Hear
At ten years old, the impetus behind my behavior change was a dose of pre-adolescent shaming. But the organizing habit, I soon realized, was self-sustaining. Later, I learned that making sense of my stuff was a skill I could hone and apply to all manner of things in my life. It makes me feel good. When life's larger matters create major distraction, I can always rework a drawer or whip my smartphone lists into shape. Thank you, Valerie!

Feedback, though, can be hard for us to hear, at any age. Particularly when someone shares a perception that flies in the face of how you see yourself, or how you wish to be seen.

It can be hard to hear when it reinforces an old sense of yourself that you've been working hard to change, or one you're not ready to consider.  

It can be hard to hear when it is all you hear.

For you and for me, there is a universe of feedback available to us. On the home front, the bearers of feedback are our parents, siblings, significant others and our BFF's. At school they are our teachers, guidance counselors, and coaches. And in the workplace, they are our associates, supervisors, bosses, and yes, our customers.

Sometimes, you just want to say "enough already with the ‘feedback.'" You get that sick feeling, the twinge in your stomach that translates as "here it comes; I'm not sure I want to hear this."

I know.

Feedback Reset: Seven Tips
I'd like to think that I've come a long way from feeling ashamed of the sub-par state of my fifth grade desk, but only because I've worked to reset my relationship with feedback. While it is not perfect, I'd call it healthy. Here are my seven tips:

1.  Put feedback in perspective
  • Remember that feedback is information based on perception. Said another way, it is observation with someone's meaning attached. You may even define feedback as a person's interpretation of your behavior and its impact. What's evident in each of these descriptions is that feedback isn't inherently right or wrong. It's not good, bad or absolute.
  • These ways of describing feedback aren't intended to diminish it. Quite the contrary. Let's say that you come home from work after a long day and your significant other says, "Aren't we grumpy tonight?" You could snap back with a nasty retort like, "Look who's talking" or, defend yourself by saying, "You have no idea what I had to deal with today!" Or, you could…

2.  Pause between the stimulus and the response
  • Train yourself to rein in that initial reaction. It may be a habit you've developed to deflect feedback and to redirect the focus away from yourself. When you use your energy to push away an observation or perception, you waste your energy. Being still and silent, even for a few seconds can seem like forever. Take that time. Take more if you need to. The point is to develop the discipline of interrupting any automatic reaction that can damage the relationship and prevent anything meaningful from occurring next.

3.  Separate the sender from the message
  • Yes, this can be loaded. After all, there is a history, a relationship and/or a context with this person who is making observations about you. This backdrop shapes how you hear what is being said and the assumptions you make about that person's intentions: she's saying this to help me; she's out to get me; he's always second-guessing me; she wants me to like her; she's just trying to make me feel better. The list of intentions you might attribute is endless. If you get stuck here, it's next to impossible to…

4.  Look for the learning
  • You have something to gain from every ounce of feedback ever extended in your direction, but only if you look for it. Remember that feedback is someone else's "take" on your behavior or actions. If it's one person's perception, it may also be the perception of others. That's valuable for you to consider; you may want to be aware of that. Imagine that a co-worker says, "You come off as abrupt and it shuts other people down." You could say:
  • "That's your perception." This response would give credence to her point and put an abrupt end to the would-be learning.
  • "Thank you for sharing." This response (and its many variations) is just plain faux courtesy. On the surface, it sounds polite and respectful. But it almost always means, "I am not interested in hearing more." It's dismissive and maybe even smug. It, too, cuts off the conversation and the learning at the knees.
  • The alternative is to look for the learning by opening yourself to hearing what you don't see, what you don't want to see, or simply see differently. So, find your courage, make yourself open, and engage by asking questions:
  • "Really? That's not at all how I see myself. Give me an example. I want to understand what you mean."
  • "I do? How?"
  • By listening to the response, you have a different lens through which to consider the impact of your actions and behaviors on others.
  • The point to keep in mind is that as awkward as it may feel, or as far-fetched as it may seem, there is always some learning. Take the significant other who refers to you as grumpy. His observation may make you aware of how discouraged you feel about the way something is going at work. While his words may sound like an accusation or a judgment, you can still look for the learning that is for one person: you.

5.  Cut some slack
  • So, you've looked for the learning and found it. But there's this tiny iota of resentment, just on the periphery. Maybe you feel hurt, or sad. Maybe your perception is that the person's examples were a little exaggerated. If you don't let that go, and cut them some slack, you won't be able to move forward and do something with the learning. It will be tainted by your resentment. Feedback can be a barrier to learning, to personal growth and insight, or it can be a springboard. That choice is yours to make.

6.  Bask in the beautiful
  • Many of us struggle with hearing positive feedback about ourselves. We may be so well-conditioned in humility that we immediately diminish our strengths and gifts when others point them out. Or, we are so relentlessly hard on ourselves that all we can hear is what we didn't do well, what we messed up or how we failed. Even when it's not there, or when it's miniscule, we enlarge the screen, pull out the magnifying mirror and beat ourselves up.
  • Keep the message to yourself simple: bask in the beautiful. Relish your strengths, gifts and talents. Be grateful for them, and use them wisely and well: they're yours. I was reminded of this recently when I asked a good friend what she thought of me when we first met. I had assumed that, back then, her first impression wasn't all that great. I knew that she would be honest because that's just how it is with us. What she said surprised me and warmed my heart. I resisted the urge to resist and replied with the one phrase that was appropriate: "Thank you."

7.  Set your own course
  • You are accountable to many others in your life: at home, in your community, and certainly, at work. You need to take seriously all feedback that you receive about your performance and your contribution. But you are not a machine or a robot. You're a human being with complex motivations and perceptions of your own.
  • You have the opportunity to use the feedback you receive for positive learning and personal change. You can set your own course in ways that are both accountable and responsible. Maybe you decide that the next time you get home from work after a particularly hard day, you'll mention that you're struggling with a project. Or, you decide that you'll pay closer attention to situations in which you can come across as abrupt. Maybe you'll even Google "organization" and kick-start your year of learning with an app that gets you going on a new course.

So go ahead and reset your approach, for a lot of good can come from a little feedback.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
Before and After
Before and After
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