How to respond to feedback constructively

Worried man looking at co-worker

This Op-ed was originally published by The Globe and Mail June 18, 2019 It is written by The Conference Board of Canada’s Dr. Bill Howatt.

You’re having a pretty good day. Work seems to be going fine, and you’re looking forward to your afterwork plans with your partner. Your internal conversations are positive, and you’re feeling good.

Then it happens. Your colleague tells you they have some concerns with the project you’ve been working on with your biggest client. Also, your manager is frustrated and wants to provide you the client’s feedback directly.

As you sit and wait for your manager, whom you understand is 10 minutes away, based on a short email they just sent you, the tone of your day changes from satisfaction to concern. Not sure what the issue may be, you begin to feel your stress level rise as you wait.

This micro skill focuses on receiving feedback, which many have never been trained how to receive.

Awareness

Receiving feedback is getting information about how we’re doing from another person or persons who may or may not be trusted sources. The nature of the feedback can be specific on how we’re doing on the path to achieving a goal, or general, based on some observation.

The most common ways we get feedback are in written form, in meetings and through one-on-one interactions. With oral communication comes the challenge of not only listening to words from the sender but also their non-verbal actions and tone, as well as our own.

Accountability

Receiving feedback effectively requires getting a clear understanding of the information’s meaning, intention and usefulness. A common mistake is automatically reacting by deflecting and defending.

Sometimes we know feedback is coming; other times, it’s unexpected. Ultimately, we’re accountable for how we respond. Feedback is nothing more than information. However, what we do with it can influence what others think and believe about our professionalism.

Action

Receiving feedback effectively is a skill that can be improved with practice. Following are tips for receiving feedback more effectively.

Create a feedback acceptance mindset

Accept that you won’t see the world the same as everyone else. This means others may want to share or believe they must share their perceptions. Adopting this mindset helps to open yourself to new information, opinions and ideas. It’s impossible to know everything and to be right all the time. When you accept this, you’re more likely to accept meaningful feedback as an opportunity to change and learn. Feedback may be what prevents an issue that you may not have anticipated.

Be humble

When you receive feedback, your first role is not to react. Remember, feedback is only information. Avoid the temptation to defend or justify your position. This only prevents you from truly listening. Listen to the person giving feedback and be clear that you understand their context. It’s fine to ask clarification questions so you can fully understand the core message. Never assume or guess at a meaning; be clear and ask open-ended questions when in doubt. It’s helpful to be mindful of your non-verbal actions and tone.

Pause and reflect

Before responding, take a moment to determine what you’ll do. You can always choose how to respond. The desired response will be based on your perception of risk, consequence and conviction. A few choices for responding to feedback:

  • Non-detailed response—If you determine there’s no benefit or need to provide a response, just acknowledging you heard it may be enough. In some cases, you may thank the person for the feedback, say you’ll consider it, and move on.
  • Agree with feedback—If the feedback makes sense to you and you agree, the focus of your response will be around how you’ll use the information. As well, such feedback may create questions that you want to ask so that you can leverage it fully.
  • Disagree with feedback—If you disagree with the feedback, be clear on your reason and facts before you respond. Emotional responses based on opinion often only increase tension. It’s fine to tell the other person you’re not sure you agree with their feedback, but before you respond you’d like to think about it a bit more. This may provide an opportunity to do a bit more research or discuss the situation with someone else to validate your position.

Close the loop

Not all feedback you receive will require you to follow up and close the loop on the conversation. However, if you or the other person agree there will be follow-up, it demonstrates respect, accountability and courtesy. The end goal is for all parties involved to be clear on what was or was not done with the feedback.

Dr. Bill Howatt

Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity

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