Learning from Feedback without Losing Your Mind

Because feedback from others can make us feel vulnerable, we often reject it. During a recent online talk, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen offered advice on making better use of feedback.

By — on / Conflict Resolution

learning from feedback

During the coronavirus pandemic, you might have gotten a lot of feedback, whether from the new “coworkers” in your home, the boss you only see in video meetings, or strangers critical of your social-distancing practices. You can begin learning from feedback, though. Instead of retreating after receiving feedback, open up a conversation, Heen and Stone advise. We need to get beyond the label before deciding if the feedback makes sense, is fair, and is correct. In a Program on Negotiation online talk entitled “Learning from Feedback without Losing Your Mind,” Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone described how to stay open to good feedback and discard the rest. Harvard Law School lecturers Heen and Stone are the authors of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Portfolio Penguin, 2014).

Learning from Feedback with Two Human Needs

The task of receiving feedback sits at the junction of core human needs, according to Stone and Heen. First, it satisfies our drive to learn and grow. Because growth and mastery make life satisfying, fun, and stimulating, we should welcome feedback. “It should feel joyous, and we should feel grateful for it,” says Heen. As we all know, however, feedback doesn’t always feel good. That’s because it can infringe on another fundamental human need: the need to be accepted, respected, and loved the way we are now.

Feedback can hurt so much that it leads us to push away the very information that could help us grow. “A week or a month or 10 years later, I might look back and think, they were right,” says Heen. “It can take a while to get to that learning.”

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Learning from Feedback Triggers

Because feedback tends to make us feel as if we’re not good enough, we often have automatic, triggered reactions to feedback, according to Heen and Stone. “I’ve learned not to decide whether I accept or reject the feedback right away,” says Heen. “Rather, I stay in the triggered reaction and sort through the feedback to determine what to accept/reject.”

When receiving feedback, we tend to have three kinds of triggered reactions:

  1. Truth triggers that lead us to evaluate and judge the feedback: “Is this feedback right or wrong? Good or bad advice? Is it aligned with my goals? What are the risks of taking it?”
  2. Relationship triggers based on who supplied the feedback. Our reaction to the feedback may depend more on who is delivering it than on what they’re saying: “I don’t like or respect them,” you might think, “so I’m not going to listen to what they have to say.”
  3. Identity triggers that explain who we are and how we are wired. Some people are highly sensitive to feedback. Others are undersensitive; they might not even remember the feedback because it didn’t trigger an emotional reaction.

The Labels on Feedback

When feedback triggers these reactions, we often reject useful feedback before we know what it means. We might feel it’s not true, outdated, or incomplete, for example.

Suppose you are walking in your neighborhood and someone stops you to ask, “Where’s your face mask?” You might think the person is saying that you care more about the economy than people’s health. Or maybe they’re suggesting you have a problem with authority? Or it could be that they’re simply concerned about your health. Because the feedback isn’t clear, you can interpret in different ways.

Feedback can be hard to interpret because it’s often delivered in the form of a label:

  • “You should be more customer-centric.”
  • “I’d like you to work on your people skills.”
  • “Can you try to be more proactive?”

Reading the Label

Instead of retreating after receiving feedback, open up a conversation, Heen and Stone advise. We need to get beyond the label before deciding if the feedback makes sense, is fair, and is correct. To do so, ask the feedback giver key questions:

  1. Where is this feedback coming from? “What, specifically, did you observe about my past behavior that motivated you to give me this feedback?”
  2. Where is this feedback going to? “What specifically are you suggesting that I do differently in the future?”

When seeking clarification on feedback, Heen recommends asking, “What’s one thing I could do better?” Asking for “one thing” focuses the feedback giver on delivering concrete, actionable advice.

Receiving Feedback Virtually

“As we’re working together remotely, using this practice takes on more importance,” says Heen. “On Zoom, it’s harder to gauge where people are so that you can connect with them, solve problems, and manage uncertainty. We have to learn as we go along.”

Asking questions can help us stay connected online: “How are you doing?” “What’s one thing you’re excited about?” or “What’s one thing that’s keeping you up at night?”

“We need to be more patient with each other than ever,” says Stone. “Some people are struggling. We assume everyone is like us: ‘It’s easy for me, so why is it so hard for you?’ We have to go slower, be more thoughtful and patient, and listen.”

Are you learning from feedback? What is the best feedback you ever received, and what made it helpful?

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