Feedback is good.
Research shows that those who receive more criticism are also those who climb up the corporate ladder the most.
Some other research from Google shows that the best predictor of a team’s success is whether members have psychological safety: do they feel like they can give feedback without being ignored or disrespected?
I’ve taken world-class courses on feedback, such as the most sought-after course at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business: Touchy Feely. I’ve read books and dozens of articles on the topic. I’ve deconstructed the topic, and I’ve applied my insights in my professional career for over 10 years. So here’s my advice on how to get great feedback. I’ll cover how to give great feedback in the premium article this week.
From all this work, I think this revelation is at the root of everything we need to know about feedback.
“Pain is knowledge rushing in very fast.”—Jerry Seinfeld
You hit your foot against a table leg. In a fraction of a second, you recoil in pain. You just learned that that table leg was not where you thought it would be. The knowledge rushed in very fast, breaking your understanding of how the world was.
Expectations are the same. A painful breakup, for example, is the contrast between how you wished the world was going to be with a person, and how it’s turning out to be. The higher your expectations, the more painful the fall. If you saw it coming, maybe it wouldn’t be as painful.
The same is true for feedback. It hurts.
You have an image of yourself. You need it to be positive, otherwise you won’t have the confidence to do anything. Then somebody tells you: “You know that area you thought you were good at? Well you suck at it.”
You know, theoretically, that in some areas you’re not as good as you think, but you don’t know exactly which ones. But if you’re told you’re bad at something core to who you are and where you thought you were good, that will completely destroy your expectations.
The biggest fear is that, if the feedback is very central to who you are, you might even wonder if the problem is about a skill or about yourself.
This leads us to one of the key paradoxes of feedback:
The most valuable feedback is the most painful.
If you’re much worse at an important skill than you thought you were, you were operating completely blind, thinking you were dope, but really being terrible. Others certainly noticed your deficiencies, and it would be impossible for you to progress without correcting them. You need to hear that feedback in order to get better at something really important.
The consequence of this for those giving feedback:
The feedback you most need to give is the feedback you least want to give.
Even if you rationally know feedback is good for you, emotionally you fear it. And many times, the emotional side overpowers the rational side. And hence you fear feedback and are reluctant to ask for it.
And because you’re like this, you safely assume that most other people are like that. And you don’t want to hurt other people, because you fear that (1) they will suffer, and (2) they will hate you for it.
Everything you need to know about how to give and get feedback comes from these insights.
How to Ask for Feedback
When asking for feedback, you need to realize your feedback giver fears you’re going to take the feedback negatively. You need to eliminate that fear. An illuminating way to break it down is in terms of return on investment.
For the other person, the cost of giving feedback is your pain or anger, and how they will have to suffer your reaction. The potential benefit is going to be your appreciation and your improvement in behavior—and how that benefits them. So to get consistent feedback, you need to show them their cost will be low and their benefit will be high.
That means first and foremost you need to show that you won’t react negatively, which means you won’t visibly suffer and you won’t respond aggressively. How can you show them that?
1. Ask for it
A person who asks for feedback shows maturity and curiosity. They’re much more likely to take the feedback positively.
Hi Alex, can I ask you for feedback on the speech?
But asking for feedback well is an art. Do it poorly, and people will just answer “That was great!” How can you get the most of their insights?
Hi Alex, can I ask you for guidance on the speech?
You also want to be more specific on the question. Advice on what? Am I supposed to look at everything and identify the area that happens to be the one where you have the most room for improvement and which will determine your future? Hard. Instead, ask for advice in specific areas such as communication style, the project recommendation, or better yet, something specific you might be worried about. Here are some examples from Shivani Berry:
How can I exceed expectations?
How can this deliverable be 10% better?
What would make you “love” this instead of just “like” it?
Was I saying “like” too much in the meeting?
Did you feel comfortable sharing your opinion in our last meeting even if you disagreed with the group?
2. Anticipate feedback
If you ask for the feedback before a project starts, the conversation about giving and getting feedback will be less emotional. Compare these two situations:
Situation 1, after the speech:
Hey Alex, how did the speech go?
Situation 2, before the speech:
Hey Alex, I’m about to give a speech. Do you mind looking for areas for improvement you can give me?
If you’re Alex, which situation is more likely to get your cooperation? The 2nd one.
In the 1st one, you might be taken by surprise. You might not be prepared. You also know the person just delivered the speech, so they might feel insecure about it. Do they really want feedback on the speech, or do they want to be told they did a good job? You can’t be sure about their intentions, so you might be less likely to give honest feedback.
In the 2nd scenario, you can invest the time to focus on monitoring their performance during the speech. It also shows that the person is purposeful in asking for feedback and improving. You’re much more likely to give it.
3. Model feedback
You might be asked for feedback by someone, but do they really mean it? Are they really going to react maturely when getting it? Or do they just know rationally they are asking for feedback but you fear they’re not emotionally ready to get it?
The best way to show you will receive it positively is by modeling it:
Hey Alex, would you mind giving me feedback on my speech?
For example, I know I always say lots of ‘umms’. Also, I paced a lot. I’m also not sure the structure was compelling. I’m also worried I wasn’t very engaging. It was clear from the yawns. Do these make sense? Do you agree? What else do you think I should improve?”
Do you think this person is sincere about getting feedback? She’s already beating herself on it, so it surely appears so, and she is showing how she can be introspective without being emotional. That makes her much more likely to remain so while getting feedback from others.
4. Show receptivity
If you ask for feedback with a frown and jitters, you will show that you are scared of the feedback, so your interlocutor will be scared of hurting you.
Hey Alex, hmmm, euhh, I’d like some feedback?
As much as you can, show that this is not a big deal to you, or that you won’t take it badly. Confidence and a big smile will help.
Another thing you can do is to refer to feedback in a positive way. “Feedback” is a better word than “mistakes”, but “areas for improvement” is even better. You can use other euphemisms that can also work well. For example, “things I need to work on”.
5. Be vulnerable and ask for help
It might not always be possible to show confidence or a smile when getting feedback. If that’s the case, there’s another way to still get it: show vulnerability. Show that you are indeed scared, but you’re eager to get the feedback, even if it’s painful, and that you’d like the other person’s support.
“Hey Alex, I’m super nervous about asking you for feedback, but I’d love to get it from you. It affects me a lot, but I also know I need it. Do you mind helping me to get it and to cope with it?”
Here, you’re not promising you’re going to remain calm. But you’re showing sincere efforts to achieve it, and you’re putting the interlocutor in a position to help you when it happens, rather than suffer from your reaction. You’re making him change camps, shifting from an enemy to an ally.
6. Realize you’re not supposed to remain calm
Feedback is hurtful by definition—you did something the way you did it because you thought it was the best, and here you have somebody telling you you were wrong. So just accept it’s hurtful. You will probably take it defensively, but you also know that’s an emotional reaction that you will work to overcome rationally.
Hey Alex, can you give me feedback? I’m sure it will hurt, but that’s ok. I need to hear it. I will listen and take it in. I might take a few moments, but that’s ok, I still need to hear it.
How to ask for feedback: let’s put all these pieces of advice together. What does a good request for advice look like?
Hey Alex, I’m going to share a project with you. Do you mind giving me areas for improvement, both on the project, but also on my performance? I love feedback and I need it to get better. Sometimes it hurts, but I still need it. I might take a few seconds to digest it, but the harder it is, the more I am going to learn from it, so please don’t pull your punches. For example, I think the last time I presented a project, it was not intuitively organized, and so people couldn’t understand why I made a decision, and it was a mess. Realizing that was super useful. Do you think you can do that for me?
OK, you’ve asked for it. Now you’re getting it. How should you take feedback?
How to Take Feedback In
People might have two emotional states when giving you feedback: rational or emotional. They might be telling you something that they rationally think you should improve, or something that has been bothering for some time.
It’s important to make the difference, because if it’s emotional, you will need to treat the feedback much more carefully. This leads us to the first rule of taking feedback in.
7. Don’t interrupt, encourage
You will frequently disagree with feedback, but interrupting is a grave mistake:
Interrupting shows that you’re not listening attentively and that you might not be that receptive to feedback.
Interrupting might feel like you’re telling them they’re wrong, which they might dislike.
The person giving feedback might be in an emotional state. An interruption might scare them or anger them further.
If you’re thinking of an answer, you’re not really paying attention, so you will lose information.
So never interrupt a piece of feedback. Simply sit, listen, and encourage the person to continue their feedback with things like nods, “aha”s, “please continue”, “I hear you”, “that makes sense”, “oh, interesting”, “I can see that”, and the like.
Sometimes, however, you might feel an incredible urge to respond because what they’re saying is completely wrong, dammit!!! But here’s the 3rd paradox of feedback:
Whether you agree with feedback or not, it’s right.
We can put it in a slightly different way:
With feedback, perception is reality.
This leads us to the next piece of advice.
8. Separate poor actual performance from poor expectation management
The other person has feedback for you because she has a perception of something wrong. If she has had that perception, other people are likely to have had it too.
The perception of something to improve can come from something you actually did wrong or from something you did right but the person perceived to be wrong. Either way, you have a piece of valuable feedback:
You might learn the thing that you did wrong.
You might learn that you didn’t manage expectations well, and as a result, people perceived that you did something wrong, even if you didn’t.
So any piece of feedback you get, whether you disagree with its content or not, is actionable: either they’re right, and you should take it, or they are telling you that your communication style wasn’t right, that you didn’t manage expectations properly, that you didn’t convey your work well enough, and so you must work on that.
9. Thank the feedback giver and celebrate feedback
Once the person has finished, you will know. They will stop talking, or say things like “Am I making any sense?” or “What do you think?”
When that happens, it’s time to thank them. Remember, you want to show them that you are good at taking feedback, so you can get more of it next time.
And you want to be as effusive as you can, so that they can see that you’re not just paying lip service.
Thank you for that, I really appreciate it. It’s not always easy to give feedback, and you seldom have a lot to gain. But you still did it, which shows you’re generous, and that means a lot to me.
Now the person delivering feedback is registering that they can be safe giving you feedback. They will do it again next time.
The fact that you were emotional might not be enough, though, because you might not have paid any attention. You might be going through the motions of asking for feedback without really meaning it. So the next thing you need to show is that you heard them, and the best way to do that is by rephrasing:
Let me make sure I understood what you said:
[Rephrase everything you heard.]
Is that what you meant?
Rephrasing has not one, but two benefits:
You show you listen, so you care
You can check whether you actually understood or not
With rephrasing, if you got something wrong, you will be able to correct it and improve the quality of the feedback you get.
11. Ask for more details
You are still not ready to respond!
Feedback is frequently messy or incomplete, because people don’t spend their lives observing you or thinking about you. They’re too busy thinking about themselves.
People are generally pretty bad at giving feedback. In the premium article this week, we’ll see how to give good feedback, but you can’t expect everybody to be good at it.
In order to extract as much insight as possible, you need to ask for more precision:
When you said this, what did you mean?
Can you give me examples?
Is there any other example that illustrates that?
What did that make you feel?
Why did it make you feel that way?
How do you think I should have done it differently?
Why you think others reacted that way?
You want to fish for information, so you must ask more open questions than closed ones—for example, don’t say “Was that right?” because that begs for a yes or no. Ask instead “How would you have done that differently?”
People don’t remember specifics of conversations, but they do remember how they made them feel. The problem is that, when getting feedback, they will generalize based on the general feeling they’ve gotten from you, and that’s not actionable. So you need to press them for details.
12. Separate the signal from the noise
Feedback is a mix of many things: your true performance, the perception, other people’s preferences, their goals in life… As a result, many times, their feedback will be relevant. But other times it might not be.
It’s not their job to tell these apart. It’s your job. Listen to them, take the pieces of the feedback that are relevant, and simply forget about the rest.
One way to separate the good information from the bad—the signal from the noise—is to compare that feedback with the feedback from others. Any piece of feedback that comes back again and again is signal. The rest is noise1.
13. Try to avoid telling them they’re wrong
For the pieces of feedback that are noise, don’t tell your interlocutor that they’re wrong. They are taking a risk giving you the feedback, you don’t want to discourage that. And as we saw, there’s no such thing as wrong feedback.
In some situations, however, you might need to correct them. Let’s explain that along with apologies..
14. Apologize precisely
Sometimes, feedback will demand an apology. How to go about that?
Apologies have a very specific function: they are meant to prove that you won’t do the wrong thing again.
What it means is that an apology implies a change in behavior. What if you don’t want to change the behavior? For example, let’s look at this couples situation:
HUSBAND: Did you see John yesterday? Why didn’t you tell me? Were you flirting with him?
OK, you need to tread carefully here. You don’t want to say this:
WIFE: What are you talking about?! Are you nuts? Yeah of course I met with John, we’re colleagues! Am I supposed to tell you every time I meet with a colleague now? Do you want me to chain myself to the kitchen to wash the dishes and prepare you a nice little dinner every time you arrive from work? Is that what you expect from me? [Expletive, expletive].
Better avoid that. Instead, view the comment from the husband as a piece of feedback mixed with lots of facts and emotions. You need to deconstruct them.
If you saw John, you must acknowledge it.
If you think it would have been right to tell your husband in advance, you should apologize for that and promise to tell him in the future.
If you were flirting with him and you shouldn’t have been, you should also apologize for that, and probably promise not to see him again.
But what happens if John is just a friend with whom you have no other intentions? Or a colleague with whom you are working and it wasn’t reasonable to tell your husband about it in advance? Then apologizing for seeing John is a precedent you don’t want to set. So how do you respond to that?
When an interlocutor is so emotionally loaded, it’s healthy to say sorry for something, but you also don’t want to lie. Doing it right means going deep into the problem.
In this case, the husband feels insecure. That’s what you need to address, and that’s where the apology can go:
WIFE: I did meet with John, who is a colleague. I meet with lots of colleagues, and I can’t let you know beforehand every time I do. I am definitely not emotionally connected to him, or to any other colleague, but I sense you might fear I am. I am sorry for that, and I want to make sure that you feel secure with me, because I love you, and I don’t want to be with anybody else. What specifically did I do that made you fear my attachment to him? Is this something you also feel when I am with other men? What makes you feel that specifically? Is it something I can influence?
Notice how the wife didn’t apologize for anything she thinks she did right and corrected the husband where he was wrong. But she did empathize with the insecurity of the husband, and gave him an opportunity to express himself further on the problem instead of shutting him down.
She deconstructed the feedback, took the pieces that were relevant, addressed the concerns, went deep into problem-solving mode, and turned a potentially destructive conversation into a productive one. Good job, wife!
15. Don’t tell them you know
Imagine Cameron responds this way to your feedback:
YOU: Cameron, I think this project needs a bit more user research.
CAMERON: Yeah I know. We floated a survey last week.
YOU: Yeah, but you didn’t ask the team for input, so the results are not usable.
CAMERON: Yeah, but now I’m redoing it and this time I’m asking for feedback.
YOU: But when you asked for feedback the second time you only gave them one day and they didn’t have time to respond.
CAMERON: Yeah I know, I know. Next time I’ll plan more in advance.
Depending on who you are, you might want to punch Cameron in the face, or simply get into a completely different line of feedback.
The problem with Cameron is that by saying “I know” all the time, he doesn’t show he’s open for feedback. By trying to prove that he already knew all the feedback—even in the context of repeated mistakes—he’s showing that his emotional integrity is very important, and that he doesn’t want to expose himself to criticism.
Even if you already know the feedback you receive, the other person is exposing herself when giving it, so you should reward that with a “thank you” instead of an “I know”. Not only that, but remember that, with feedback, parsing the signal from the noise means that feedback you’ve already heard is still valuable, because it confirms whether it’s signal or noise. So don’t respond “I know” to people giving you feedback.
16. Dissociate identity from behavior
“That’s shit.”—Steve Jobs
Since people are bad at giving feedback, you might very well receive pieces of feedback like that one, or the ones below:
What you did was really dumb.
Didn’t you notice? It was obvious!
You have no charisma.
This campaign you’re suggesting is shit.
How should you react to that?
The normal reaction is to get blustered or angry. It’s mean! Who would say that? Am I really dumb? Do I lack charisma? Do I make shit?
From there, many people might fall into a whirlpool of self-doubt.
The key here is to “not take it personally”. Easier said than done.
“His inner circle understood that Steve’s acerbic criticism wasn’t personal. They’d all learned how to, as former controller Susan Barnes said, ‘get through the yelling to the reason for the yelling.’”—Brent Schlender.
There are two things you need to be doing at the same time here. First, as we’ve said, it’s to separate the signal from the noise, the yelling from the actual point—the reason for the yelling.
The second is to dissociate your identity from your behavior. What does that mean?
When you take something personally, it means you are hurt because the criticism attacks who you are. You take it to mean that you are not worthy: of love, of success. But you shouldn’t choose that interpretation. There’s a better one.
You can choose instead to interpret that you are great, but that your behavior could be improved. You could have worked harder, or paid more attention to your delivery, or rehearsed more… You want to switch the feedback from who you are to what you do, from inactionable (you don’t choose who you are) to actionable (you choose your behavior).
For example, when preparing my applications for grad school, I asked for feedback from a friend, and he told me I lacked charisma. That was world-wrecking because I knew charisma was crucial for success at work, and I thought I was OK at it, but here he was, telling me I was shit at it. Not only that, but I knew charisma couldn’t be developed.
I took it personally for many years, knowing I had about as much charisma as an asparagus, and there was nothing I could do about it. Then I learned that charisma could, in fact, be developed. So I read The Charisma Myth—highly recommended—, and started going to public speaking classes. I’m still the same asparagus in my personal life, but I learned to switch to a more charismatic style at will. I’m no Obama and never will be, but I can certainly get above asparagus level now.
That’s an example of switching feedback from identity to behavior.
17. Act on it
If you never act on the feedback you get, you will show that you were in fact paying lip service to it. Then people will learn that their feedback is unheeded and will stop trying to give it to you.
So do it. Act on feedback. In fact, even better: show that you act on it. Come up with a plan on what you’re going to do about the feedback, share it with the person who gave you the feedback, do it, and give updates along the way. How impressed do you think the person giving feedback will be? How likely do you think he will be to give you more feedback in the future? This is so unique that he might even start mentoring you if it’s the right relationship. There are very few people who take feedback so well, so when somebody finds somebody else who is willing to listen, learn, and improve, it’s worth their time.
18. Make it regular
The first time you receive feedback, the other person won’t be comfortable. But if you do a good job, she’ll learn that she can give you feedback without unpleasent consequences for her, so she’ll be more likely to give you additional feedback in the future.
You can improve the likelihood of that happening by simply making it a regular occurrence. You can ask for more feedback every week if you have a 1-on-1, or with whatever frequency suits you. That way, the person can expect to give feedback in the future and will be more likely to observe you.
OK, so here are the pieces of advice I have for you to get feedback:
How to ask for feedback:
Ask for it
Show you’re receptive to it
Be vulnerable, ask for help receiving it
Realize you’re not supposed to remain completely emotionless
How to take feedback in:
Don’t interrupt, encourage
Separate poor actual performance from expectations
Thank the feedback giver and celebrate feedback
Rephrase the feedback you hear
Ask for more details
Try to avoid telling them they’re wrong
Don’t tell them you already know the feedback you receive
Dissociate your identity from your behavior
Act on it
Make it regular
And if you can’t remember this whole list, instead remember one single thing: when asking for feedback, you need to realize the other person is scared and messy. It’s your job to put her at ease and extract all the juice you can from what she tells you.
Now all of that is to receive feedback. How do you give good feedback? This is what we’re covering this week in the premium article.
In effect, you’re averaging out the different inputs you get from different people, which is exactly how separating signal from noise happens in information management.