7 essential rules for receiving feedback

Here are some rules that would help you to receive feedback without getting upset or destroying your relationship with the person who gave it to you.
We talked about a few important rules of giving feedback. Now, what if you are on the receiving side - are there any rules to follow? Absolutely yes!
Think of feedback as a precious gift someone is giving you. They carefully selected it, they put some thought into wrapping it nicely and are quite nervous when giving it to you, so please be mindful of it and use this opportunity to express your gratitude and to use this gift to your advantage.

Here are some rules that would help you to receive feedback without getting upset, engaging in a fight or destroying your relationship with the person who gave you the feedback (even if it was not delivered in the best way possible).

Let them know how you like your feedback served

If you have an opportunity to discuss your preferences before the feedback is given, use it. Some people prefer on-the-spot feedback, others need to set up separate time to be able to carefully process it. You might or might not be open to very direct and frank feedback. I personally would ask people to say things as they are and I really want to know what I’m not doing well so that I can improve. At the same time, I know a few people who easily get hurt by too much of direct feedback and would prefer to have a little bit of positive and negative feedback intertwined. No one likes sh*t sandwich, but altering honest positive and negative feedback would help to process both better.

By the way, if you get easily upset by constructive feedback, you should not! And next rule hopefully will help you to understand why.

Know that they care

As I said, the feedback is a gift. The person giving it to you wants you to get better at something because they care about you. By the way, this only applies to in-person feedback coming from people you know. You can ignore the comments on the internet coming from strangers, those can be quite toxic and have nothing to do with you.

So when your peer tells you that you are doing something wrong, the message they normally try to convey to you is not that you are a bad person or you are lacking talent/skills/experience. They are trying to tell you that it will be beneficial for you (and maybe others) if you change your approach and do things differently.

Let’s say you just joined a team, and your manager tells you that your email to the client was poorly structured and the language you use was inappropriate (I live in Japan - we care a LOT about the email etiquette). The purpose of this feedback is not to scold you, but rather to help you understand how to write better emails and become more professional at what you do.

They might be wrong. But what made them perceive situation in this way?

Let’s face it, not all the feedback we receive is justified. For example, you might have executed your task perfectly, but one of your colleagues didn’t get the status update and didn’t finished their part on time, blaming you for the delay. Now your team lead is telling you to get work done on time and you are really frustrated. You did everything you were supposed to and it’s not your fault that some idiot filters out Jira notifications straight to spam!

Clam down. Yes, it’s annoying and you might have done everything right. But also, the outcome was not okay and the whole team got impacted. You can explain to everyone what happened, but in this situation this is not the top priority. Rather think what you could have done differently to get the right outcomes? Maybe tap the colleague on the shoulder when you sent them your work and tell them it’s ready? Or help them to set up the email filters so that they never miss the important notifications anymore? Or initiate a team retrospective to agree with the whole team to a better approach to communication? And none of this probably is part of your responsibilities, but this is what the teamwork is all about. It is way more productive to start seeing opportunities for improvement rather than engaging in finger pointing and blame games.

Ask questions

Not everyone is a master of giving feedback, so whenever something is not clear, please ask questions.

“Can you give me an example when I did X?”

“Why do you think I didn’t do it right?”

“How did my actions impact the team?”

“How would you have done it differently?”

The key here is not getting defensive (we don’t want to turn it into a fight, and the moment you start protecting yourself, the other person will be perceived as an aggressor). Remember, we are in the process of receiving a precious gift! Even if you think the feedback is not justified (and that happens), don’t make your questions sound like you disagree. Rather try to understand what are the events that led your peer perceive the situation in this way and what are your actions that they think you might need to adjust.

After all, we don’t see ourselves in the same way others see us, and you might get some interesting insights, but only as long as you are interested in learning about yourself.

Don’t start justifying yourself

The moment you start explaining your actions and your motivation, you will inevitably get into the defensive mode. Keep all your “but I only wanted to help” and “those rules were not explained to me” to yourself. What matters is that the situation is already in the past, it had some impact on the team (or project, or a specific person) and we can learn from that.

Imagine this situation. You hurt your finger playing basketball, and during a dinner at a Chinese restaurant you cannot use chopsticks and ask the waiter for a fork instead. One of your friends who doesn’t know about your finger, sees it and give you a chopsticks training kit as a little gift next time you meet. You have two options here:

  1. Get offended and explain that you are a chopsticks pro
  2. Thank them and have a good laugh about it
In my opinion, with any gift it is important to show appreciation and thank the person, even though you might not actually need this gift or be allergic to it (as someone who’s been allergic to chocolate for many years and and was still receiving a lot of chocolate gifts I have mastered this skill). Thanking the person for the gift you didn’t need might feel fake, but are we really thanking them for the gift itself? I do strongly believe that it’s the attention and the thought they put into it that counts.

Don’t feel obliged to do exactly what they told you

Receiving feedback might be hard if you start feeling like everything you do is wrong and you need to completely change your ways.

I have some good news for you. First, if you are getting the feedback, that means you are not hopeless and not everything you’re doing is wrong. Your friend or your colleague thinks that if you do something differently, you will have better results. But hey, this is just one person’s opinion!

Second, people tend to give more constructive feedback than they give positive feedback. Just assume that everything they don’t mention you’re are doing right

Third, they might not we fully aware of the overall context or situation. We have already agreed that you will not explain yourself and focus on better understanding the feedback instead. However, if you know something they don’t know and you feel like the solution they’ve suggested won’t work, that’s totally up to you to decide whether you want to follow advice or not! Hopefully the feedback you got will still trigger some thoughts about things you can improve or do differently, but it doesn’t have to be done in the exact same way your peer suggested.

Follow up proactively and seek more feedback

Asking for feedback show your willingness to learn and improve and the more you do it, the more supportive the people around you will become. Please be mindful of the fact that sharing feedback is not easy for some people, so you might need to create a psychologically safe environment for them. Ensure them that you are open to listen, don’t get defensive or upset, ask clarifying questions and thank them wholeheartedly for the feedback they gave you.

If someone’s style is not working for you, for example you feel they sugarcoat things a bit too much, or are more direct than you can handle, just tell them so.

I really hope my overall message is clear here: feedback is an important tool for your personal development and is a precious gift that we should treasure and be thankful for.
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