6 Tips for Hearing Tough Feedback

Feedback is the breakfast of champions -- but you have to be able to hear the message and choose to act on it.
6 Tips for Hearing Tough Feedback
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Last month, I wrote about the importance of giving effective feedback and shared tips for how to deliver a tough message. But there's the recipient's experience to consider as well, because there's no escaping feedback in life.

Related: 5 Tips for Gracefully Accepting Constructive Criticism

Feedback could the pain we experience after accidentally touching a hot stove burner, or the humiliating words we hear from a friend, coworker or boss about how we need to change our game. Then, there's that internal voice that berates us with, "How could I have said that?"

Constantly, we are reminded of how we are doing,or whether we are living up to our personal values or the expectations of others. 

So, feedback is a fact of life and fundamental to our success. Without it, the status quo would prevail, "average" would become the norm and new discoveries and results might not occur at all.

Unfortunately, that doesn't mean we are ready, willing or able to listen, especially to tough feedback. As Amy Jen Su eloquently described in the Harvard Business Review, feedback, even delivered effectively, can feel like a punch in the stomach, causing us to recoil and reject the message out of hand.

I'm personally still learning to embrace "the gift of feedback," especially when it doesn't match my expectations. When I'm blindsided, I can anguish for days or weeks, lose sleep, hesitate when I should take action, lose my mojo. This is unproductive behavior on my part.

And others, I believe, do the same: When we don't hear feedback "in the moment," then acknowledge and act on it rather than worry about it, we lose an opportunity to change our game and even raise it, as needed.

Of course, when feedback comes your way, you don't have to act immediately, or act every time. However, you do need to make sure you listen. File it away for future reference, if necessary. Ultimately, the choice to act, or not act, is yours. Here are six tips for hearing tough feedback and reacting graciously.

1. Stop!

When we receive tough feedback, the amygdala in our brains is triggered. This is the piece of our limbic system responsible for the fight or flight response. Unfortunately, that response, designed to protect us from threats, may misperceive feedback as the threat.

Related: 'What Did You Say?' Is Your Employee Feedback Getting Through?

And that's a problem because the real threat is the behavior or event that triggered the need for feedback in the first place. So, stop at the first sign that a "Yes . . . but!" or "You're wrong" response starts bubbling up. Tamp it down. Don't react to the feedback. Instead, bide your time; listen to the whole message. Then choose your response.

Dr. Travis Bradberry from Vital Smarts emphasizes that learning to stay calm, especially when you're receiving tough feedback, will enhance your effectiveness.

2. Say "thank you."

I know, your critic wasn't expecting that! However, before you get on your high horse and start telling the other person how misguided his or her feedback is, stop, look the other person in the eye and deliver a heartfelt "Thank you!”

My guess is that if the feedback was important, your colleague will have put a lot of thought and effort into drumming up the courage to tell you. Chances are, this person cares enough about you and your relationship to share the message. So the least you can do is acknowledge it and say "Thank you." 

I promise, that response will stand you in good stead, and likely ensure that the communication channels remain open. In addition, you'll receive more feedback in the future which might be critical to your success and reputation. Still skeptical? Check out the wise words from Dan Rockwell, the Leadership Freak, where he shares his seven positive responses to negative feedback.

3. Look for the 1 percent grain of truth.

When we receive tough feedback we tend to see it as a complete character assassination. "You're late" is heard as "You are always late," which results in our silently listing events where we were not only on time, but early. See, what happens is that we move from listening to defending ourselves.

Instead of taking the feedback as the absolute truth that applies all the time, look for the 1 percent grain of truth. Build from there.

Think of yourself as one of the results of a Google search. That feedback you're hearing is the string of words entered into the search field -- one data point that can return thousands of results. Focusing on the 1 percent helps you retain the right perspective and not dismiss the feedback out of hand.

Here's a tactic we share in our leadership programs to help process feedback. It works: Consider the feedback in three ways. First, write down the feedback that was shared. Then write everything that you believe is wrong with the feedback. Finally, write down what could possibly be true in the feedback.

See what you just did? You allowed yourself to process the feedback in a way that identified the 1 percent. Now, what will you do?

4. Seek out the patterns.

It's easy to dismiss feedback that doesn't match our own self-perception and move on to the next thing without a second thought. Bur before you do that, think back; reflect. Have you ever received this feedback before? How about something similar? If this is the first time you have ever had this feedback, then let it go.

If it sounds even vaguely familiar, then stop and listen up. One point of view has just turned into a pattern. And patterns can help or hinder you. What is the common factor, place, situation or theme? Does the feedback matter enough to you today to sit up and pay attention?

A senior IT leader I was coaching shared that "attention to detail" was something he had always struggled with. It regularly appeared in the "need to improve" piece of his performance reviews, but he had dismissed this criticism as others' needing to chill-out and stop worrying that he was imprecise. He dismissed the idea that he might need to change his approach.

He was driven by the excitement of new projects, which meant that following through and "dotting the i's or crossing the t's" on projects that were coming to an end just didn't capture his attention.

Now, he was at a crossroad, and his career was in jeopardy. He had been passed over for promotion because others had seen the pattern that he had ignored. Feedback was the wakeup call this leader needed, and he was now ready to listen and take action.

He and I both accepted that it was unlikely he'd ever reach a perfectionist level when finishing projects. But through our executive coaching conversations, we were able to identify tactics that he could apply in the moment, to stay focused when it mattered most, and deliver a complete and polished end product. The process took time, but his reputation for being slap-dash did change, and rekindled the confidence others had in him.

Which feedback patterns have you been ignoring? What baby steps will you take today to change that pattern before it becomes a career derailer?

5. Listen with curiosity.

Quiet your inner voice and listen hard to the message. Ask, "Why would someone think that of me?" Asking a question (even in your head) engages the neocortex; the gray matter; your rational, thinking brain. By asking, you'll see your question soften your amygdala's ability to trigger that fight or flight response.

Remember, feedback is the answer to a problem you may or may not have known you have. If you are curious, you can become engaged in the conversation. You don't have to agree with the feedback or act on it. But if you aren't curious, you won't hear it, you won't be able to process it, and the gift of feedback will be lost to you.

6. Ask questions.

Questions enable you to clarify what you have heard, to identify the specific behaviors that resulted in the unintended impact, and hence truly hear the feedback.

“I was listening during in the meeting; however, can you share when you thought I was disengaged?”

"When you said ---, did you mean --?"

"In which other meetings/situations have you seen me do this?"

“What is one suggestion for how I might handle this differently in the future?”

"What would you recommend I do next?"

Apply these six tips, and you will be less likely to feel caught off guard the next time someone provides you with some unexpected feedback. While tough feedback is never our first choice, it's something that can accelerate our success -- if we hear it.

Related: Quell Employees' Fears of Performance Reviews With These 6 Tips

Learn how to receive feedback graciously, and you will be in a better position to take the appropriate action to accelerate your career and ensure that your reputation as the consummate professional continues to shine through.