Learning to love feedback

Dec 15, 2019  ·  Gavin Coughlan

Feedback is a funny thing. We crave it, get disgruntled if we don’t get it, and often get upset when we do get it. As someone who requests feedback on a relatively frequent basis, I have been on a journey from being a terrible receiver of feedback, to a much less terrible one. It’s something I am always working on, and ultimately I want to get to the point where I am happy to receive all feedback, no matter how enthusiastically positive or brutally critical.


Feedback fail


Case in point: many years ago I was giving a talk at a conference. The conference had an app that allowed all attendees give immediate feedback after each session.


I was pretty nervous about my talk as it was the biggest crowd I had ever spoken to. I was anxious to see the feedback afterwards to see how I had fared. As the feedback rolled in I was pleased to see that it was largely positive.


Then one piece came in which said “Boring. Speaker spoke too fast. I came here to learn and I got nothing from this session.”


I was devastated. I ended up trying to justify the comment mentally. “You can’t please everyone.” “Whoever wrote that just needs to listen faster.” “That person is obviously satan.”


People I spoke to about it kept telling me to focus on the good feedback, not the stuff that was negative. I tried to do exactly that, but for weeks after the talk that comment would be floating around my mind, rising to the surface at the oddest times, usually when I was trying to sleep.


The comment may have been written very bluntly, but it had very valuable information in it. I do speak too fast for some people. I am not a born public speaker and need to work to make my presentations more engaging. But it took me a long time to really pay attention to the content of the comment and allow myself to learn something from it. While I did eventually take the points above on board, I also learned that I suck at receiving feedback. And after asking around, it turns out that most people struggle with it.


A lot has been written about how to give good feedback well (the books Crucial Conversations and Be the Hero helped me a lot with this), but not as much has been said about how to be good at receiving it.


A second score


There is a fantastic WorkLife with Adam Grant Podcast episode that covers the topic (How to love criticism), and he mentions the idea of a “second score”. Your first score is the initial piece of negative feedback you receive. Your second score is how well you receive a piece of critical feedback. If you take it on board and express gratitude to the person who provided it, you have yourself a good second score. If you get defensive, tell the feedback provider where they can stuff their criticism and storm out of the room, your second score is not so good.


For example, I would give myself a low second score for how I dealt with the conference feedback described above. I beat myself up about it, demonised the person who provided the feedback, and took a pretty long time to take some learnings from it.


6 tips to help you get better with feedback


So how do you get yourself to a place where your second score is consistently good? Like I said at the start of this post, I have struggled with this for years, have improved dramatically, and still have a way to go. Here are the steps that have helped me and may be something for you to consider if you struggle in this area too:


  • Invite feedback often: This is the big one. The best way to get better at receiving feedback is to get it often, train that muscle. If you are an Agile Coach, get feedback on your role, on meetings you facilitate, presentations you give. If you are a manager, actively seek feedback from your peers and your teams. Years of requesting feedback (and surrounding myself with sociopaths who provide unsolicited frank feedback on a continuous basis) has absolutely helped me build a thicker skin and learn to love criticism.
  • Really listen: Don’t get caught up in the emotions we all feel when we are criticised. Acknowledge those feelings (defensiveness, maybe some anger, perhaps a touch of humiliation), but focus on what is being said and step outside of yourself. This is how someone has perceived you or your performance, it is valid and incredibly useful to be aware of.
  • Assume feedback is coming from a good place: Feedback is meant to be a gift, and if it being offered to you it means someone wants to reach out and help. It should come from a place of love and not be taken as an insult or threat. Remember that the intentions are good, and that can help you respond gracefully.
  • Seek clarification: If the feedback you are getting is confusing and broad, dig in to it. Ask for some specifics. If you are confused about the message, there aren’t any actions you can take as a result.
  • Show gratitude: The best way to respond to feedback is with a simple ‘thank you’. Someone has cared enough to take the time to reach out to you and be honest, which a lot of people find difficult. They may have imagined how you might respond and pictured some worst case scenarios. Put them at ease and be genuine with your gratitude.
  • Give yourself a second score: Think about how you responded to the feedback you received. I grade myself out of 5. 0 if I punch someone, 5 if I was genuinely appreciative of the feedback and planned to use the information to improve.

I have seen teams struggle giving and receiving feedback, and it can result in artificial harmony and issues lingering far longer than necessary. I have also seen those same teams put effort into getting better at feedback and flourish as a result. It’s not an easy skill to master and maintain, but it’s not too hyperbolic to say it’s a life changer once you do.

Categories: Agile Coaching.