Receiving feedback

TL;DR: Feedback can be stressful and nerve-racking, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how I deal with “good” and “bad” feedback.

Feedback, predominantly when negative, can be hard to accept and have a long-lasting effect. For example, I still remember what my colleague said in 2015. I was a trainee back then, and they said I wasn’t proactive. In my opinion, proactivity is a characteristic of any decent agile coach, so this phrase hit me hard. It took the person maybe a few seconds to communicate this feedback, but it stuck with me and will probably stay in my head for a long, long time.

The last time I received feedback, I realized I needed some framework to deal with feedback constructively. So here we go.

Learn to accept compliments

The root of my fear of compliments must come from receiving nasty messages wrapped between two compliments. This fact led to me ignoring compliments entirely. Whenever I’m given any feedback, I skip over the pleasant bits and dive straight into the parts that aren’t as nice.

This advice might sound simple, but it’s highly effective. No person in the world is only good or bad. We’re all human beings, so there are always many nuances, and the feedback we receive will reflect that.

Before jumping into the bits that are “negative”, accept all the positive messages. Because feedback isn’t just about fixing myself, it’s also about amplifying everything useful and helpful. For example, in the latest feedback cycle, someone said I often give valuable suggestions because I have lots of knowledge and experience organizing team processes. What I can learn from that is that:

  1. It’s useful for my team.
  2. I should keep it up.
  3. I could dig more into these topics in the future.

The world is already pretty gloomy, so let’s, from time to time, allow ourselves to feel good about who we are and our impact on the environment around us.

Ignore the ego

When receiving negative feedback, I notice that I have the urge to justify myself. But is this helpful?

I received feedback that my communication style is “too direct”. My first instinct is to jump to my defense: “If you think I’m too direct, maybe it’s your problem?” But this sort of thinking doesn’t help anyone move forward. First of all, feedback is anonymous, so I couldn’t explain myself to the person who wrote this anyways. Moreover, this kind of thinking gets in the way of my improvement as a team player. If someone made me feel uncomfortable, I’d like them to change how they act. The same applies the other way around. I made someone uncomfortable, and I could address that.

Often ego gets in the way of progress. So before I dismiss a comment, I ask myself if there’s something in it that can help me become better? Of course, it’s hard to hear negative words like “too direct”, “too assertive”, or “pushy”. But the person who wrote that probably was in some pain when they said these things.

Ignore poorly formulated feedback

One thing that recently stumped me was the amount of unusable feedback I get at times. For example, someone was annoyed with my chuckling. So my first thought was stopping to smile, laugh or chuckle. However, that’s not realistic and not a productive way of dealing with the feedback.

While there’s excellent feedback, I might also come across simply non-actionable items. The healthy reaction in this situation is to shrug it off and move on.

Give feedback about the feedback process

Feedback is a valuable mechanism to improve personally and make teamwork more enjoyable. However, if it turns into simple bashing, this needs to be reported and addressed. There might be people who have a problem, but that doesn’t give them any right to drop a pile of garbage on my head and move on. If I ever receive any unprofessional feedback, I cannot tolerate that and should defend myself.

Moreover, reporting this sort of misconduct is helpful for the organization. Maybe fewer people will feel sad over whatever their peers wrote in the following feedback cycle.

Non-violent communication

Last December, I received feedback from my peers. While the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, some comments made me feel terrible. At times I felt that someone was just angry and wrote harsh critiques.

Whenever I feel gloomy about what others say, I turn to the Non-violent communication approach from Marshall Rosenberg. In essence, it says that we have to develop empathy towards others.

I took some of the most hurtful comments and tried to look at them through the lens of empathy. This process helped me a lot. Rather than being angry or sad at harsh words, I’ve been able to develop a little bit of understanding of what others might mean.

“You’re dismissive” might turn into “I want you to acknowledge my opinions”. “You’re too pushy” might mean “I want my ideas to be accepted”. “You’re taking your opinions too seriously” might be translated into “I want my ideas to be taken seriously too”. While the first comments can come over as hostile, their translations let me develop empathy towards other people’s pain and make me more open to changing my behavior.