Much of my work as an executive coach and an instructor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business involves helping people improve their abilities to deliver feedback more effectively. It’s a critical skill, particularly for both leaders in flat organizations where giving orders is generally counter-productive and for anyone who needs to manage up or across by influencing their bosses or peers. And it’s a topic on which I’ve written extensively, not only in posts on my site and at HBR.org, but also in the HBR Guide to Coaching Your Employees.
But a recent exchange with my colleague and former Stanford student Anamaria Nino-Murcia made me realize that I’ve been neglecting the other half of this equation: How to receive feedback more effectively.
First, we need to recognize that receiving feedback is inherently a stressful experience. As Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone wrote in “Find the Coaching in Criticism” in the January-February issue of HBR, “Even when you know that [feedback is] essential to your development and you trust that the person delivering it wants you to succeed, it can activate psychological triggers. You might feel misjudged, ill-used, and sometimes threatened to your very core.” And this is true even in feedback-friendly organizations, and it’s even worse in environments where feedback is infrequent and surprising.
As a species, we have developed a “threat response,” a cascade of physiological, emotional, and cognitive events that occur when we perceive a conflict. We typically refer to this set of reactions as a fight, flight, or freeze response. Recent neuroscience research has shown that our brains and bodies can respond to certain interpersonal situations the same way we react to literal threats to our physical safety. Psychologists refer to these experiences as “social threats.”
Executive coach David Rock conducted an extensive study of the relevant research and developed the SCARF model [PDF] to help identify interpersonal dynamics that are likely to trigger a social threat. What’s striking is how many of these dynamics are present in a typical feedback conversation:
Status: Feedback often comes from leaders and managers who occupy a position of higher status in the relationship. And when feedback comes from a peer or subordinate, you may interpret their behaviors as the temporary assumption of a higher status role.
Certainty: You may know little about the content of the feedback, particularly in an organization or a relationship where feedback is rarely offered. Even if you have a sense of what the conversation will be about, you can’t be certain about its specific content.
Autonomy: You may feel required to participate in the conversation, especially if a manager has initiated it. And the increasing prevalence of a “feedback-rich culture” (which I’ve helped to promote) may make you feel obligated to participate in a feedback conversation anytime anyone wants to have one. This makes your participation feel less like a choice.
Relatedness: As with status, when someone is providing feedback you may perceive them as temporarily assuming a more distant role, resulting in an diminished sense of personal connection or closeness.
Fairness: You may well view feedback as unfair, particularly if the feedback giver makes inaccurate assumptions about the motives behind your behavior (as they often do.)
These dynamics can trigger a social threat in every one of us. When we encounter people of higher status, when we experience uncertainty, when we feel less autonomy or freedom of choice, when we feel less connected to those around us, and when we believe that something is unfair we are more likely to experience a social threat. It’s no wonder that feedback can be so stressful!
With this context in mind, here are the keys to receiving feedback more effectively.
Reframe the experience: In the moment, you can use Rock’s SCARF model to better understand what’s happening, and employ your conscious awareness of those dynamics to diminish your sense of social threat. This is a long-established psychological technique derived from cognitive-behavioral therapy known as cognitive reappraisal or, more simply, reframing. Psychologists such as James Gross and Rebecca Ray of Stanford and Kevin Ochsner of Columbia have shown that reframing can reduce stress levels and increase our abilities to manage negative emotions.
In the context of a feedback conversation, you should remind yourself of the following:
- Your perception that feedback is threatening is rooted in clearly understood neurological and psychological dynamics. The feeling of being threatened doesn’t automatically imply that you are facing a literal threat.
- The person providing you with feedback isn’t necessarily assuming a position of higher status or lording their status over you. In most cases their intentions are simply to help you improve—even if they’re doing so ineffectively.
- Even if you feel obligated to participate in the conversation, you are making the choice to respond to that pressure, and you do have some agency.
- If you feel as if the feedback is unfair, keep in mind that you may be misunderstanding the feedback giver’s motives. And they may have made some wrong assumptions about you as well. If this is the case, try stating your true intentions and point out how they differ from what the feedback giver has assumed.
Note that reframing has its limits, and your capacity for feedback is finite. At certain points you’ll be unable to fully comprehend the other person’s comments, or you’ll become distracted by your own inner monologue, or you’ll simply feel overwhelmed or flooded with various emotions. These are signs that you’ve absorbed all the feedback that you can at the moment. When this happens you should pause the conversation so that you can make sense of what you’ve heard so far, and agree to continue only after you’ve had an opportunity to reflect.
Build the relationship: Over time, you can develop closer relationships and build trust with the people who are likely to give you feedback. This will help you feel more comfortable.
The work of John Gottman, a social psychologist at the University of Washington and a leading expert on relationships, suggests that the following steps can help:
- Share more personal information about yourself so you and the feedback giver grow more familiar with each other. You could do this over a meal, of course, but that’s not always possible. At the start of the feedback conversation, just take a few seconds to disclose how you’re feeling before jumping into the business at hand.
- Express more appreciation, even for small gestures. We tend to minimize signs of appreciation in our working relationships because we assume that the other person knows how we feel, or we fear that our appreciation will be misinterpreted. As a consequence, we miss opportunities to generate positive feelings and establish closeness — qualities that tend to make feedback conversations less stressful.
- Notice when the other person is seeking your attention — this can be as obvious as an invitation to lunch and as subtle as a glance seeking to make eye contact — and respond to these “bids.” You may not be able to fulfill the other person’s need for your focused attention at a given moment, but simply acknowledging it can help build a deeper, more connected relationship.
Develop a feedback-rich culture: While there’s much we can do individually and in our working relationships to improve the experience, the process of giving and receiving feedback will always be heavily influenced by the surrounding organizational culture. We should strive to create a culture in which feedback conversations are less stressful for all members of the organization. Among other steps, this involves giving and receiving feedback more frequently so that it becomes a normal aspect of organizational life, making it OK to both postpone feedback conversations until a better time, and ensuring that senior leaders walk the talk by offering and inviting direct feedback on a regular basis.
We often hear that feedback is “a gift” or “the breakfast of champions.” I don’t disagree with those sentiments, but I’ve stopped using those phrases because they fail to acknowledge how difficult the experience of receiving feedback can be. This can lead us to ignore our stress levels in feedback conversations, or, worse, feel required to tough it out even when we’re distressed past the point of effective learning. (As board-certified neurologist and middle school teacher Judy Willis has written, “[W]hen stress activates the brain’s affective filters…the learning process grinds to a halt.”)
I’m a confirmed believer in the value of pushing ourselves outside our comfort zones in order to grow, and feedback is an essential element in that process. But we should step into these conversations with a keen understanding of how we respond to stress, a plan for managing our stress levels, and an awareness of when we become too stressed to absorb feedback and learn from it. It’s a certainty that we’ll encounter some poorly-delivered feedback that renders a stressful experience even more distressing, so we need to prepare ourselves to receive some difficult feedback in the moment and strive to make our working relationships and organizational cultures safer, more trusting, and more feedback-friendly.
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