Asking for feedback is the right way to receive feedback

Feedback (and specially negative feedback) is essential for growth. Without it you don’t know what you should do better, and it’s up to your own judgement to decide if your work is good enough.

In my own experience, own judgement generally leads to:

With own judgement alone you’re stuck in your head’s echo box.

Yet feedback is a really hard topic to tackle. Positive feedback is generally skipped or overlooked, and negative feedback is avoided until it’s too late. Furthermore negative feedback creates a lot of irrational reactions and puts people in defensive mode, which makes integrating the feedback you get virtually impossible.

“Well, yes but…”

Recall the last time you received feedback from one of your colleagues. A time that caught you off guard. Or maybe from your partner or friends. How did you feel, and most importantly what was your first response?

I think you could have done better

Yeah, but I was on a tight deadline

Let’s take the example above. Put yourself in the shoes of the person receiving the feedback. Probably when you heard the first phrase your heart rate went up, you felt a rush of blood to the head and maybe a jolt of energy?

This is you going into defensive mode, and you likely replied something along the lines of “yes, but…”. Instead of acknowledging what was said and accepting the feedback you immediately jumped into action to produce an excuse or reason for the let down. This kind of action, I believe, is the single biggest impediment to integrating the feedback you might receive, and the reason why arguments escalations escalate.

Now, there are way better ways to provide feedback than to just blurt out something out. My personal favorite is the non violent communication. One suggestion of the framework, for example, is to phrase feedback in a defined structure

However we cannot expect everyone to provide feedback in and non violent manner, expressing their clear needs and feelings. Furthermore we are not talking about providing feedback, but how to receive it.

On avoiding negative feedback

Harvard Business Review (HRB) recently (2019) published an article on how negative feedback hinders learning, arguing that “Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.”

The article touches very similar points mentioned here. However I fear that it might be interpreted as a call to only use positively reinforcement feedback. Also, I feel negative feedback is absolutely necessary because of its effectiveness as a corrective measure.

For example: If a kid says a swear word in public, you wouldn’t tell them that “Here’s how I would say it”. You would probably say “That word might make people feel uncomfortable, you shouldn’t say it”. Positive reinforcement is less effective because it does not point out the thing to be avoided.

Furthermore, as I mentioned before, you cannot control how others give feedback, so the proposed measures are only useful for giving feedback, not receiving it

Brace for impact

I think a big reason for the defensive instinct reaction is surprise. It takes a great deal of practice to recognize that you’re being defensive. Defensiveness puts you in the fight or flight mode, and having an introspective moment when your body and mind are in “attack mode” is not easy.

So my apparently simple proposal is that we take steps to minimize surprise, and to create an environment where you can be prepared for your body and mind’s physiological reaction.

One possible way to minimize surprise, and allow you prepare, is to take the initiative of asking for negative feedback often. And most importantly, every time you do ask for feedback take a moment to prepare yourself.



Important note on condescendence

A very good point of the mentioned HBR is the critique to theory of the source of truth, and assuming that knowledge is like filling up an empty jar. This is what I call condescending feedback - feedback, from people that think they have everything figured out, and assume you know nothing.

This will surely put you on the defensive, and it’s an ineffective way of providing feedback for that reason. It might even be the reason why HRB critiques negative feedback in the way it does. But, once again, we cannot control how other people give feedback, so it’s up to you to understand where that feedback comes from, acknowledge it’s condescendence, but distill something out of it.