Ep 19: How to get better at receiving feedback

October 11, 2023

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I'm Sarah — leadership and communication mentor.  I'm here to help you grow your leadership, resilience, and influence. 

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We know that feedback is essential for healthy relationships and professional growth, but sometimes it can be challenging to receive. This is especially the case if you didn’t ask for it, don’t want it, and you don’t agree with it! 

In this episode (the third in a series of four on feedback) we explore how to listen to and process any kind of feedback in a positive, constructive way and use it to help you grow and progress.

I’ll cover: 

  • The three reasons why feedback can be hard to receive 
  • Two mindset shifts to help you reframe feedback and approach it with a learning mindset
  • Four tips to help you receive any kind of feedback with grace.

Let’s get better at receiving feedback and keep on Positively Leading!


Thanks for the feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

Want to listen? Just click play below!

Prefer to read? Check out the article below.

How to get better at receiving feedbackeven if you didn’t ask for it, don’t want it, and you don’t agree with it!

What has been the most difficult piece of feedback that you’ve ever received? Whatever it was, you can probably remember where you were, what was happening, the room you were in and your feelings at the time. It probably had quite the impact and may have been quite unsettling. Let’s explore why. 

Why is feedback so hard to receive? 

How to receive feedback is something rarely talked about and never really addressed in feedback or communication courses, yet it is so important. Building on ideas in the brilliant book ‘Thanks for the Feedback’ by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, here are three triggers to consider: 

Identity and belief triggers 

As humans, we are wired to learn and grow and we are happy to get feedback to improve in all sorts of learning when it comes to things like yoga or learning a skill. When we’re learning about ourselves, it’s a bit different and instead, there is an inherent tension between learning and being accepted. Sometimes feedback hits home because, regardless of whether we agree with it or not, it’s like a laser beam that cuts into our sense of who we are. Suddenly, we’re in a physiological and unconscious response mode of fight, flight or freeze response. My most difficult and triggering piece of feedback to hear was around 15 years ago: “Sarah, you’re just not a people person”. I’ve always prided myself on forging strong relationships with people, collaborating, and caring about others; I thought I was doing those things whilst getting things done. I didn’t see myself in the feedback, and it led me to feel overwhelmed –  thoughts surrounding my identity and beliefs had been triggered.

Content triggers

This is when you think the content of the feedback is unfair, unhelpful, or just wrong. Feedback is simply somebody’s perspective and when done with the right intention it is there to help us to discover those blind spots – what we can’t see for ourselves. Feedback is designed to help us discover these and help us learn, grow, and change. When we receive feedback that we disagree with, it’s a monumental task to receive it with gratitude once you’ve gone into flight, flight, or freeze mode. Thinking about last week’s article (not read it yet? You can do so here), you might recognise the language choice “you” or “you’re not” in the feedback I was personally given as contributing to my response to this feedback – I may have responded differently if this had been phrased differently or had been much more specific. If the feedback had been shared focusing on what somebody noticed (a behavioural observation) I may have been able to listen differently. Language matters!

Connection triggers

The third obstacle to being receptive to feedback is not actually to do with the feedback itself. Instead, it’s about the person giving the feedback and how you might be feeling towards them. If you don’t feel connected, cared for, or respected by the person giving the feedback it will never feel like a positive experience. In my case, my thoughts went to “Ha! So you don’t think I’m a people person. That’s hilarious coming from you, considering what you’ve just said…” and at that point, I zoned out. 

So, how do we overcome these obstacles? 

Shift your mindset – how to reframe feedback

There are two mindset shifts or ways to reframe feedback.

Firstly, it’s not about you. Feedback doesn’t just tell you something about yourself; it also tells you about the person giving the feedback, even if it starts with “you are”. It tells us about their values, preferences, opinions, and their expectations. For example, I put lots of effort and love into each podcast episode and topic with my goal being to provide bite-sized chunks of learning, insight, and inspiration about leading positively. It may only reach five people with none of them liking it, but does that give me facts about the quality of each episode? No, it gives me information about what those people like or dislike. This is the same even if a thousand people didn’t like it, which wouldn’t be easy for me to receive, but it wouldn’t necessarily tell me about the value or quality of the podcast. It would just tell me what leaders like or dislike – it gives me data – it tells me what resonates with my desired audience which is helpful. Reframing to this mindset makes the feedback easier to process. We can then get curious about what the other person values, expects, or wants.

The second mindset shift is what I call use it or lose it. You have the choice of what to do with it. It’s about identifying what is strategically helpful for you and then ‘using it’ or ‘losing it’ or ‘letting it go’. Ask yourself, is this feedback relevant to my goals? If the answer is no, and the feedback is not coming from your line manager or a key stakeholder, but instead from a random person on social media, you can lose it. However, if it is relevant, and the feedback is critical because you might want to progress in a job, make a positive impression, or you want to improve in a particular skill, then you’ll want to use it. Feedback then becomes data and you can make a plan, think about how you want to adapt, and be strategic. You can even ask for further information either in the feedback moment or at a later point in time. 

Receiving feedback 

Finally, I’ve got four tips to share that will help you to receive feedback well. 

Preparation is key

Preparing mentally and emotionally before you go into a feedback conversation is a game changer. Ask yourself what might be said and think through the good, the bad and the ugly. Visualise yourself remaining calm throughout. You could also take some deep, calming breaths before you go in and during the conversation. Remember, that it’s only someone’s perspective and practise saying thank you – thank you for sharing. 

Know your triggers

Are you likely to be triggered by identity and belief, by content, or by connection? Think this through before you go in. And, when in the moment, get curious about your feelings. You might feel angry but you will be able to identify why as there will be some distance between you and the emotion that you’re feeling. 

Seek to understand and look for the learning

You might not agree with some or all of the feedback, but remember feedback can give you a perspective that you can’t give yourself – it’s giving you an insight into those blind spots. When you’re calm and in a position to listen and to hear it, you might want to ask for more detail to help you look for the learning. When you’re in a feedback conversation and you don’t agree, don’t give feedback on the feedback! Just simply say thank you, go away, process it, and you can always return and be curious later. 

Curiosity can be the antidote 

No matter what you’re thinking or feeling, curiosity can be the antidote. Your brain can’t hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time, so get curious. Tell yourself, ‘how fascinating!’  or ask, ‘I wonder…’ You could also say ‘could you tell me more about that please?’. If you need to listen to the feedback because it’s coming from a line manager, ask them ‘what advice would you give me now?’ and get a clear picture of expectations and how to succeed. You’ll be able to deepen your learning and get a really clear picture of expectations and how to succeed. 

Think about how you’ve responded to feedback in the past. What would you have done differently thinking about the areas discussed? More importantly, how might you take a more positive approach to receiving feedback in the future?