“May I offer you some feedback?” What is your immediate reaction to this question?

For many of us, those six little words instantly trigger our alarm system and bring up feelings of defensiveness. Anticipating we’re about to get attacked with criticism, we prepare to protect our ego.

While most leaders admit that feedback is valuable, when it comes to being on the receiving end, we often have the urge to cover our ears and shout “la la la la la” to drown out the message! 

Here’s the conundrum

On one hand, we have an innate desire to learn and grow. We want to get better. But, on the other hand, we are hard-wired with the need to feel accepted and respected. Although we’re interested in how others perceive us, this interest is grounded in the hope that we’re viewed positively. Getting favorable feedback feels great. We all want to hear how wonderful we are! Even though we know constructive feedback can help us improve, any kind of criticism stings because it feels like rejection.

Most leadership development programs focus on teaching leaders how to give feedback but few teach the skill of receiving it – even though it is an essential and perhaps more valuable skill in the long run. Feedback, in any form, is a tool for continued learning. Whether it’s feedback from your customers, your boss, your peers or your employees, it is an important ingredient for personal and professional growth.

Feedback provides the opportunity to learn about the impact you’re having on others. It allows you to become aware of your blind spots and gain insight into improvement opportunities. Research tells us that people who actively seek constructive feedback perform better and experience higher job satisfaction.

But really – how often does someone offer to give you feedback? This happens rarely, and almost never from your direct reports. A leader has positional power and with that power comes reluctance from the people around you to tell you the unvarnished truth about your flaws. This means you will have to reach out and request feedback.

How do you get the benefits of constructive feedback without the angst? By asking for it with an open-mind and learning how to accept it with grace and poise.

Five tips for receiving feedback

  1. Be curious. Remind yourself about the benefits of getting feedback. By taking on a “growth mindset” and demonstrating interest and attentiveness, you send the message to the person from whom you’re requesting feedback that you want to hear their perspectives. Recognize that any initial feelings of defensiveness can be turned into curiosity. 
  2. Ask incisive questions. Rather than a macro question (such as “Do you have any feedback for me?”), ask questions that begin with how (such as “How did that meeting go from your perspective?”) or what (such as “What could I have done differently?). Sheila Heen, co-author of “Thanks for the Feedback” recommends the “one thing” approach. As in “What is one thing you see me doing, or not doing, that is getting in my own way?” or, “What is one thing I could do that would improve how I provide leadership in our department?” 
  3. Suspend judgment and listen with openness. Maintain eye contact and open body language. Ask clarifying questions and repeat back what you heard to ensure you have a clear understanding. Probe for specifics. Ask for examples.
  4. Say thanks. Don’t argue. Don’t defend your behaviors, even if you feel the feedback is inaccurate or off-base. Just say “Thank you”.
  5. Reflect on the feedback. Accepting feedback does not always mean you have to act on it. You always have a choice. You get to decide what parts of the feedback you will let in, what you can learn from it and, ultimately, what you do with the feedback. Keep in mind, you will almost always be able to find something wrong with any feedback, but that doesn’t mean you should completely disregard it. You can find value in even the toughest of criticism.

Just like learning any new skill, the more you ask for and receive constructive appraisal, the better you get at it – and the less stressful it becomes. As a leader, when you visibly role model the art of receiving feedback with grace, you set an example. Your actions signal that learning from feedback is valued. 

What are your thoughts on this? I’d love your feedback!

Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, is the SVP of Engagement Solutions for Align. In her role, she provides strategic leadership and supports development of solutions to help providers successfully build and sustain a culture of engagement.