Maximizing Personal Growth by Understanding The Feedback You Get
Even the best of us make mistakes. Taking feedback well is aimed at building a healthy growth habit, identifying the best growth path, and keeping the balance while walking down that road.
In 2014, Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen, from the Harvard Negotiation Project and the authors of Difficult Conversations, came together and published a book called Thanks for The Feedback. In 309 pages, they talked about how to receive feedback well. They didn't focus on software engineers or any specific profession. But they doubled down on receiving aspect of feedback.
A while ago, I gave a talk about how to receive feedback to maximize your growth based on their book. And today, I want to write down what I talked about to answer three questions.
Why should we focus on receiving feedback?
Why do we become defensive when faced with negative feedback, and how can we lower our walls?
How do we understand the feedback we get? And what to do with it?
Why is receiving feedback more important than giving feedback?
I have never met a person who wants to stay as it is. Everyone wants to change a thing or two and knows there is no better way than to get constructive feedback. However, what constructive means changes from person to person. Also, focusing on how to get feedback well is not everyone's trait, as it's uncomfortable: we prefer telling people what they should do instead of hearing what we should be doing.
Receiving any kind of feedback is hard—positive and negative. When we get a compliment, we often don't know what to say besides thank you. We deny it and stay humble even though we like the words we hear, and we deeply know that we deserve them. On the other hand, when we hear any feedback that aims at altering our behavior, we see it as a threat, and somewhere in our chest, anger/sadness/frustration pop up. Our mind tells us to calm down, but it's challenging to push back these negative feelings.
Due to this discomfort, we focus more on giving feedback. The responsibility for improvements is not on our shoulders anymore. It's the other side who has to deal with it; it's the other person who has to change their behavior.
If everyone focuses on giving feedback and nobody tries to get better at receiving feedback, how can the given feedback be effective? If everybody talks exceptionally well, but nobody listens, what's the purpose of talking? What thrives groups or communities is valuable confrontation and mastering the feedback-receiving skills or even finding the feedback even when there is no one giving feedback.
As it's promoted in many ways in the business books and behavioral psychology, feedback drives our learning. When we focus on receiving feedback, our curiosity grows with every word we hear. Extracting the best from any negative feedback feeds the growth. The growth mindset looks for feedback but easily builds up walls when we hear criticism.
Even though we need feedback, seek it, and ask for it, we go behind the fence when faced with a harsh one. We can learn how to grow only when we lower our walls and break down fences. Only then can we understand what we lack or do wrong. But why do we put up walls or build fences around ourselves in any criticism we hear?
Why do we become defensive when facing negative feedback?
Because we have an inner voice that never stays silent. Whenever we hear negative feedback, it lights up and starts firing back. Something triggers these blocks and prevents feedback from going through. According to Douglas and Sheila, three triggers erect these walls and block feedback: truth, relationship, and identity.
We build walls when the other side is—simply put—wrong. For example, we get feedback that says we didn't take responsibility when there was a failure. In fact, we took responsibility and did a great amount of work to recover from failure, yet, they didn't see. So, the other side is wrong; there actually is no feedback. But still, the other person thinks that they give us feedback. So, what's happening there?
To uncover the case, we need to understand three different kinds of feedback:
Three Kinds of Feedback
Appreciation: It's the feedback we love when it's authentic and given on time. Examples:
"I appreciate the feedback you gave last week. I was able to improve thanks to it."
"You're a great team player."
Evaluation: The feedback is to evaluate our skills, align expectations, and clarify consequences. Examples:
"We increased your compensation by 30% because you did an amazing job on the last project."
"You exceeded our expectations last year."
The goal is to rate against standards and expectations.
Coaching: The feedback is to give direction. It aims to help us learn, grow, or change. Examples:
"You should work on your debugging skills."
"To improve your communication, please read these two books."
The coach is aimed at fixing a problem.
We need all three of them. But we feel disappointed or become defensive when we expect one but receive the other. In the example above, we got evaluation feedback that indicates we didn't meet the expectations while we were waiting for the appreciation feedback.
How to Understand The Differences
As we expect something and get something else, there is a mismatch. It's often caused by differences in behavior and intention.
Behavior and intention are two sides of the coin. We see someone else's behavior, but the intention is often invisible. On the contrary, we always know our intention and aren't often very careful about how we reflect it to the other side. If someone is taking the time to give us feedback, they have an intention we must uncover. How they give feedback (their behavior) might trigger unpleasant feelings on our side, but we must actively listen to understand their intention.
Instead of getting into defensive mode and responding with, "That's not true," we must hold the thrust in our internal drive and approach with, "Tell me more." We should insist on asking clarifying questions and getting more information until the person giving feedback has nothing left to say.
A very unintuitive thing to talk about when the truth triggers are working is talking about the purpose of the feedback and figuring out the type of feedback. If they wanted to give appreciation feedback, but it turned into coaching feedback, we can explain these three types of feedback and ask them if they wanted to give coaching feedback or appreciation feedback. Making it explicit and talking about it also helps the feedback giver deliver it correctly.
This was about the truth that blocks feedback from reaching its destination. We also have two more triggers that prevent us from growing. Let's look at the relationships.
Sometimes, feedback doesn't reach us because our relationship gets in the way, even though what the other person says is true (most of the time, it's true). When we hear negative feedback from someone we care about (or someone we're frustrated with), we get defensive. We react to who they are, not what they say. What we think about the person and how they treat us causes us to build defense walls.
When our parents told us, "You never tidy up your room," we often said (or thought), "That's my room; stop putting your nose into my life." Our reaction was based on our relationship. Our room was probably a mess, but what we understood was not about that; it was about them intervening in our lives.
At work, when one of our peers we're frustrated with tells us, "Your code is not working," we answer, "Well, it's your problem. It works on my machine. 🤷" It becomes their lack of skill that they can't figure it out. What triggers us to react this way is not the feedback but how we set up our relationship.
While the feedback is about the code not working, we move the discussion to the relationship and push the responsibility to the other side. We switch the track we're on.
Don't Switch The Track You're On
When our moms tell us that we never tidy up our room, it's about our room. When our colleague tells us our code is not working, it's about our code. But our response is about how our mom always interferes with our lives and how our colleagues cannot run the code. We change the track we're on. Our colleague wanted to discuss code, but we moved the discussion to their incapability. When we change the track, we immediately create conflict because that's not what our colleague meant. They then have to explain themselves with frustration or get into defensive mode.
Getting out of this cycle requires us to take three steps back and figure out the relationship system we are in.
Understand The Relationship System
There are three elements in every relationship: two people and the relationship itself. We often forget the last one. To lower our defense walls for feedback to pass through, we need to take three steps back to uncover three elements of the relationship.
The first step back is uncovering two elements: us and the other person. We each have our unique personalities that can create conflict when working with different personalities. In the first step, we should identify how each of us contributes to the problem.
The second step is understanding the relationship: the role clashes. We have our roles in the team and organization. Many role definitions are largely invisible, even if they are well-defined. These invisible boundaries are the hidden source of conflicts. After understanding our roles, we can take the third step.
The third step is looking with a bird-eye view: the big picture in the organization. We should identify how other people, project and hierarchical structures, work processes, and other relationships influence and constrain decisions and affect the outcomes we get.
Side note: Understanding the relationship system also helps to correct our tendency to absorb blame. For more detail, you can read this post.
The first two triggers (truth and relationship) were focused on both sides of the feedback. There is a third, and the most fundamental one, that not only causes us to take a stance against feedback but also pushes us to go offensive—identity.
Imagine getting feedback that says, "You are always late to the meetings." If punctuality is part of our identity, this feedback will be threatening. As a result, we will feel it in our bones and create walls to mitigate the pain. Or we accept it and dodge the feedback with an answer, "Yes, that's who I am."
While even the best of us makes mistakes and do things that don't match how we define ourselves, how do we prevent the feeling of threatening our identity? How can we lower our guard and accept the feedback?
Side note: This part requires a lot of self-reflection and work on ourselves more than any other situation we talked about above.
We start with learning ourselves and our story.
Know Yourself and Find Feedback Footprint
Learning ourselves is a tricky process. But without it, we cannot comprehend the feedback we receive. We must understand our thoughts and feelings and don't hang up on stories we built for ourselves. Instead of living in the past or focusing on the future, we can take feedback at that moment.
When someone gives us feedback, we shouldn't tie it to our past. When we respond to feedback with, “I was always like that, and I don't think I will change,” we get stuck in our past.
On the other hand, we also shouldn't focus on the future. If someone says, “You don't know how to behave in a meeting,” we shouldn't think in our heads, “I will never learn to work in a team,” which focuses on our future selves who, in five years from now, still don't know how to behave in a meeting.
Instead, we need to take the feedback at that exact moment. To do that, we must discover how we react to feedback, which requires asking ourselves questions and finding our feedback footprint.
Our reactions to feedback define how the feedback giver perceives our feedback-receiving skills. When we surprisingly react with anger or cry in facing harsh feedback, it creates a picture of how we cannot handle the feedback. These various behaviors are the feedback footprints that are unique to the individual. Many people are unaware of their feedback footprint and are not ready to face harsh feedback. Asking ourselves, "How do I typically behave when I receive feedback?" is a good strategy to help us learn our unintentional behaviors. If the answer is crying, then explaining this to the other side can help with the whole situation and the perception we leave on others. After learning our reactions, it will be easier to prepare for any kind of feedback, easily handle difficult situations, and embrace a growth mindset.
Embrace A Growth Mindset
Whenever we build a growth mindset, we see negative feedback as less threatening and more of an opportunity. The growth mindset means looking for cues to learn, finding opportunities to improve, and being open to change. For example, instead of saying, "I am a procrastinator," we can embrace more complexity in our lives by saying, "I try not to procrastinate if I can," and be open to changing our identities.
When we build this growth mindset, we begin taking the extra mile and start looking for cues to learn, even when there is nothing around. We will begin pulling feedback even if there is no feedback at all. This mindset creates a path for us to grow.
So far, we talked about learning how to receive feedback instead of building walls and acting on it to grow. We haven't talked about the other side of the medallion yet, and it's as crucial as accepting feedback.
Drawing Boundaries to Block Feedback Intentionally
Sometimes, we get too much feedback than we can handle. Or we get the feedback at the wrong time. It doesn't mean we should push ourselves to improve on many fronts, which can have a detrimental effect. If we cannot take feedback anymore, it's also okay to draw boundaries and acknowledge feedback and gently deny it. Not every feedback is correct or on time. If we understand the feedback but have no time or energy to take action, we must be clear with the other person, explain why it's not the right time, and thank them for the feedback and the time they spent on it.
Here is an example answer to the feedback we can't take at that moment:
"Thanks a lot for the feedback. I appreciate you taking the time to consider it and give me this feedback. However, I'm currently not in the best position to act on it. I have to figure out some other things that currently require my attention. When I'm done, I will consider your feedback and approach you to talk about it. I hope it's okay for you. Once again, thank you so much."
Learning how to take feedback well is a delicate and complex process. However, once we know the basics, it's much easier to handle any feedback and grow as a person. Even the best of us make mistakes; nobody is perfect. Taking feedback well is not aimed at becoming a perfect person; it's aimed at building a healthy habit of growth, identifying the growth path, and keeping the balance while walking down that road.