Learn to Love Feedback (Part 2): How to Receive Feedback Well

By: Angie (Min Ah) Park

Let’s talk about receiving feedback! Does your heart race while waiting for feedback? Do you feel on edge when someone gives you negative feedback? Rest assured: this is normal.

Receiving feedback demands many prerequisites from us such as emotional intelligence, an empathetic mindset and emotional agility. And each one of these prerequisites are not easy to acquire on their own. 

Even with these prerequisites under our belts, receiving feedback well necessitates a set of effective communication tactics to respond with humility and to embrace the positive spirit of a feedback friendly culture

This is why we are starting with receiving feedback. We are accountable for how we respond to feedback no matter what the feedback is or how it is delivered to us by someone else. Developing this foundational skill allows us to reflect on our emotional awareness and have greater empathy for someone else when the tables are turned.

As leaders, responding well to our peers, direct reports, and clients’ feedback is also crucial for our organizations’ growth, teamwork, and relationship building.

So, in this post, we will explore: 1) the prerequisite mindsets and skills we need to master before receiving feedback, and 2) five steps to receiving feedback well.

Let’s start with the basics: What prerequisite mindsets and skills do we need to acquire before receiving feedback, and how are these prerequisites linked to emotional intelligence?

Our Brains and Emotional Intelligence

Last week, we briefly discussed the role that our brains play in receiving challenging feedback.

A psychological process that we all experience when we perceive social threats called “amygdala hijacking” explains why we might feel nervous or sometimes “lose it” when we encounter difficult feedback.

Amygdala hijacking was first described by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ

In summary, because our brains are designed to protect us from danger, if the amygdala (the region of the brain associated with processing emotions; also referred to as the “smoke detector”) identifies a situation as a threat, it makes a split-second decision to initiate a fight-or-flight response before the neocortex (the “thinking” part of the brain) has the time to overrule this decision.

This fight-or-flight response involves the release of stress hormones such as epinephrine (otherwise known as adrenaline) and cortisol that increases our heart rates, elevates our blood pressure, and boosts our energy levels, as if to prepare our bodies to flee or fight. 

These hormones explain the unpleasant bodily reactions we experience when we feel anxious and on guard about receiving feedback or when we become so nervous, distressed, or angry that we say or do something that we later regret. As if this wasn’t enough, our memory can also become unreliable during this process of amygdala hijacking, especially when we are stressed.

Understanding how our brains work against us in these ways helps us to see the importance of emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to regulate our emotions, recognize the emotions of others, and to help others express them. According to Goleman who popularized this term, EI has 4 major domains:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-management
  3. Social awareness
  4. Relationship Management

Nested within these 4 domains are 12 EI competencies such as empathy, adaptability, conflict management, and positive outlook that further define the range of characteristics that an emotionally intelligent leader must develop.

Many of these competencies are also essential to receive (and give) feedback well. For instance, having an empathetic mindset helps us to better understand someone else’s intentions when they are giving us feedback, and conflict-management skills enable us to turn even the most unpleasant feedback situations into moments of learning and influence. 

Our emotional self-awareness is crucial to move past our bodily reactions in the moment and to take a breath, collect our thoughts, and to speak with calmness and humility even when our amygdalas may tell us otherwise. These skills and mindsets prepare us to respond with impactful communication to feedback, and importantly, they are both “learned and learnable capabilities” that we can all develop with practice.

As an emotionally intelligent leader then, how do we receive feedback well? What are the key steps?

Here are the 5 steps to receiving feedback:

  1. Check in on your emotions
  2. Embrace humility
  3. Identify your takeaways
  4. Practice gratitude
  5. Commit to change

Use these steps as your internal guiding posts the next time you are caught in the moment of receiving difficult feedback. Remember that in each of these steps, communication is key.

For example, when you are on the first stage of checking on your emotions, after determining that you are ready to engage in a fuller feedback conversation, say to your audience, “I am happy you feel comfortable sharing feedback with me. I am ready to listen.”

When you are on the second stage of embracing humility, try admitting your mistakes openly and letting them know that you are ready to learn. You can say something like, “You’re right. I messed up, and I am going to change my behaviour.”

On the third step, we can use our communication to clarify what we are taking away from the feedback conversation and also to show our audience that we have listened to them fully. Try paraphrasing what they have recommended or articulating your plan for future improvement. We can also use this step to seek more context or information, if we are having trouble understanding what we need to change or the recommended path forward.

Then, practicing gratitude on the fourth step simply means thanking our audience for providing us with feedback–because we recognize that this may have taken them their own time, reflection, and courage.

Finally, an important communication step we often forget when we receive feedback is committing to change. This means that we commit to a specific change in our actions or behaviours and clearly outline exactly what we will start, stop, or continue doing to our audience before we walk away from the conversation. 

**The “commitment” we make can simply be continuing the feedback conversation further at a next meeting or check-in opportunity. Nevertheless, whatever commitments we communicate, we must be ready to take action. This means that we commit authentically to what we know we can and are willing to change, rather than making empty promises.

And that brings us to the end of this week’s post on receiving feedback well! If this continuing discussion on feedback is resonating with you, check out The Humphrey Group’s new comprehensive learning experience on Learning to Love Feedback. Stay tuned also for next week’s blog article on the art of giving constructive feedback!