Receiving Feedback

Last week, I spoke about mistakes — failures, really — and learning how to embrace them as learning experiences and tests of our ability to overcome obstacles. I also reflected on how a big component of this positive perspective on mistakes was resilience — a trait that I, admittedly, was sorely lacking throughout my career.

It’s amazing that it wasn’t until my sabbatical that I finally developed this skill in resiliency. In fact, I’ve realized that there are quite a number of “areas of improvement” that plagued me throughout my career and finally clicked during this sabbatical.

For example, a while back, I wrote about the MVP — minimum viable product — and how my perfectionism was a huge roadblock in allowing me to embrace this idea of pushing out a first version and then iterating on that. It wasn’t until this sabbatical and my work launching the podcast and my YouTube channel that I understood the benefits of just getting a product out there and then slowly improving on it.

I thought it would be interesting to continue this look on those career “weaknesses” that I was slow to improve on while I was working full-time, but finally overcame during the sabbatical.

So, in this post, I want to talk about receiving feedback.

Feedback is a gift 

Anybody who has worked at Facebook will be well familiar with the phrase “feedback is a gift”. Giving and receiving feedback is so ingrained in the company culture. But for someone coming from companies that didn’t really focus on feedback, it can be a difficult thing to adjust to.

For me, personally, it was hard not to feel like feedback was just someone cutting me down, by focusing on the things I’m doing wrong. On the one hand, I was a perfectionist, so any mention of things I could improve on or do differently was an attack on that persona. And on the other hand, I was already suffering from major imposter syndrome (as many do when they move from small companies to a large corporation), so negative feedback seemed like ammunition I needed to protect myself from, lest they find me out for the fraud that I was!

And, of course, logically, I knew this wasn’t the case. The point of feedback — much like mistakes — is to give you opportunities to grow by showing you what you can work on. But it was hard for me to get over the negative emotional response that I had to the feedback process.

And so, as you can imagine, I got really defensive. Coworkers, managers, cross-functional partners would give me feedback, and I would jump in with my rebuttal with why they were wrong.

And here’s the thing — sometimes, you really will disagree with feedback and ultimately decide it’s not something you want to follow. However, you still need to know how to graciously receive it. 

My manager at Facebook tried to give me advice on how to better receive feedback, even if you don’t agree with it. The key is that right after getting the feedback, you need to show that you understand what was said to you and accept that the person has that option. A helpful way to begin that response is “I hear you saying that …”

After that, it’s good to thank people for their feedback. And then, of course, you can ask questions, if you need more information to fully understand the feedback. However, you should not use questions in an attempt to change the person’s mind about their feedback.

But, I was just never able to really embrace this feedback process. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was already burnt out and so I didn’t see the benefit of improving in my work. Maybe I wasn’t getting the reassurance I needed that feedback wasn’t a threat. Perhaps, it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, ultimately, this inability to receive feedback well had a huge negative effect on my working experience.

Counseling to the rescue

Well, no spoilers here — I did finally get over the feedback hurdle during my sabbatical. However, it wasn’t through my career exploration, it was actually something from my personal life — marriage counseling.

As I wrote about in a past blog post on core emotional needs, last year Ryan and I did a few months of couple’s counseling. In one session, we were talking about how to create an environment where we both felt safe to have serious conversations with each other. Our therapist taught us a validation exercise that would help build this foundation of safety through the following 3-step response process:

  1. I see what’s going on: you reiterate what your partner is telling you to verify you’re hearing the statement correctly.
  2. You make sense: you validate your partner’s feelings by showing that you understand why they would have that emotional response, even if you don’t feel the same way.
  3. I’m here if you need it: you reassure your partner that you are there to support.

For example: “What I’m hearing is that you were upset when I left the laundry spread out on the bed before going out to lunch and that you took that as I message that I expected you to clean it up. I can see how that would make you feel disrespected and unappreciated. I’m here if you want to find ways together to work through those hurt feelings.”

In the above example, it doesn’t matter if the partner was mis-reading the intent of the action. The hurt feelings were still very much real. So, that initial response needs to simply show that you understand what your partner is saying and why they might feel that way.

It’s been an exercise that has really improved the way Ryan and I communicate. And by now, I’ve had a lot of practice with it, even using it when I have arguments with my family or friends.

*Light bulb moment!*

This is exactly what my manager was trying to teach me about receiving feedback at work.

By starting with this validation response, you:

  • Give yourself more time to process feedback. When your initial response simply needs to just show understanding, there is no need to automatically retort with what you’ll change (or why you think you don’t need to change). 
  • Create a safe space for feedback. When the feedback giver is shown validation, even if you don’t ultimately follow their suggestion, they will have a positive experience and feel welcome to give feedback in the future. They will also probably be more open to receiving feedback themselves!

Now that I’ve built up this skill in my personal life, I’m excited to use it in professional environments, when I finally return to work.

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