Learning to Take in the Gift of Feedback

by Peggy Penberthy

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While receiving feedback is critical to learning and development, we often get defensive and squander the learning opportunity. One of the things that makes receiving most difficult is distortion. We often exaggerate, misperceive, or project feedback in a way that wasn’t intended. In Thanks for the Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen suggest that our reactions to feedback are due in part to our “wiring” in three areas: baseline, swing, and recovery.

Baseline refers to our personal default setting or general level of well-being. Whether receiving positive or negative feedback, we tend to gravitate back to our baseline. Swing represents how far up or down we go, or our emotional bandwidth. Recovery refers to duration, or how long it takes to get back to our baseline. Combinations among the three will impact how difficult it is to receive feedback. A high baseline, low swing, and short recovery will make receiving tough feedback easier than a low baseline, high swing, and short recovery.

In addition to our natural wiring, our thoughts and feelings work to distort feedback. Strong feelings lead us to extreme interpretations, generalizing feedback to all areas of our lives, assuming everyone thinks this, or imagining we will always be this way.

Stone and Keen identify several practices for dismantling distortions and increasing the likelihood that feedback can be heard more openly and accurately. The first is to know our “feedback footprint,” or typical reactions to feedback. If we can name our patterns, we have some power over them. Secondly, distinguish between feelings, story, and feedback by asking:

– “What do I feel?”

– “What’s the story I’m writing, and what threat am I perceiving?”

– “What was the actual feedback?”

Another helpful practice is to “contain the story” so that we neither exaggerate the feedback, nor deny it. Questions that help us do that are:

– “What is this about?”

– “What isn’t this about?”

Finally, shifting our vantage point can help minimize distortion. Feedback stings because it’s about us, so if we imagine that it was given to someone else, it can help us see it more rationally. Receiving feedback is a natural part of being in the workplace, and learning to receive it well is critical for development.

About the author
Peggy Penberthy