Receiving Feedback

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Have you ever learned by accident that someone really didn’t like your presentation, or meeting, or workshop that you held? And you wondered why they didn’t tell you? Maybe you even got a bit mad that they didn’t tell you, because you explicitly asked for feedback? If you start looking for a reason, there are two processes that might not have worked: Providing the feedback and receiving it.

Why Feedback Is A Two-Way Movement

There is an emphasis in literature on how to provide feedback. It needs to be constructive, not personal, preferably uttered in a nonviolent way. And it’s true, if feedback is provided in a poor way, there is a high chance that the crucial points will be missed completely. Imagine someone comes to you after your presentation and let’s you know that they didn’t enjoy your presentation at all and that they think it was stupid. If you are just a tiny little bit like me, you will be offended, and possibly rage about that encounter in the evening with your significant other. However, they might have a point. Maybe your presentation was indeed stupid and you simply didn’t know!

If that person came to you, and let you know that they had feedback about your workshop they would like to share, and they asked you whether you want to hear it – you would be much more open to accepting the issues they might raise than in the first example. So, for now, I think we can all agree that how you provide feedback has a large impact on how well it is perceived and accepted. We can also agree that providing feedback is a skill that everyone should try to develop on their journeys, and that it is especially important for team leaders. Being a team leader includes providing feedback on a regular basis, so if you’re poor at providing it, you will struggle a lot (and maybe lose your team’s support!).

However, it’s not done with providing feedback. As a conversational process, feedback goes through the same steps that every conversation goes through. It starts with a sender – the one providing the feedback – and is sent to a receiver. That’s you! So if you’re not ready to receive the feedback, the sender can make any efforts they want: They will still fail.

Understanding feedback messages

One conversation model that I find exceptionally suited for the work environment is the four-sides-model by Friedemann Schulz von Thun. It is easy enough to keep it in mind, but complex enough to reflect on typical situations at work. According to this model, every message that is sent has four sides: fact, self-revealing, relationship, and appeal. Those four sides influence how the sender phrases the message, and how the receiver understands it.

  • Fact: On the fact side, the sender provides new information. In our example, this would be that there was something wrong with the presentation.
  • Self-revealing: On this level, the sender says something about themselves, about their current status, or mood. Based on how poorly the feedback was formulated, they were maybe frustrated with the situation.
  • Relationship: This level is about sender and receiver. What does the sender think about the receiver – and vice versa? Although the ideal status of this level is mutual appreciation, it will differ very much in the workplace. If you’re receiving feedback from an employee, it will differ from the feedback you receive from your boss. Of course, this level is basically never something that will be referred to explicitly. It’s just important to know in order to decode the message.
  • Appeal: On this level, the sender asks for something from the receiver. By telling you that your presentation was stupid, the sender maybe wanted to ask you to rethink your concept.

There usually is one level that is much stronger expressed and/or received than the others. In our example, it could be the self-revelation that the sender was not pleased, frustrated, or angry about the presentation. But even the most perfectly phrased feedback may fail if the receiver was not ready for it. Every side of the model needs to be decoded by the one receiving it. And there we have it again: Feedback is a two-way movement! You are in charge to do your 50 percent and receive the message as complete as possible.

  • Hearing the facts: There are new facts in every conversation, but they might not be equally obvious or important. As the receiver, ask yourself – what was the new information you got from the message?
  • Understanding the sender: Take the emotional state of the sender into account, as well as the overall situation. Were you in a rush? Was there a lot of noise around you? Was the sender relaxed, tensed, or even angry?
  • Analyzing your relationship: Who hasn’t received a feedback that was hard to take in, and immediately thought – who are they to tell me what do do?! This is a typical indicator that there is something off on the relationship level. Focusing on this side may keep you from understanding the crucial point of the message, and might on the other end keep the sender from bringing their message across. This level is very powerful – especially in the workplace, where you are confronted with a ton of different relationships every single day.
  • Appeal: If someone feels the need to provide feedback, there’s usually an appeal behind it. Maybe they want you to improve your presentation skills, or they saw that you lacked technical knowledge which disturbed the presentation flow. There is something for sure – but you need to hear it.

Don’t take it personally!

If you feel offended by feedback easily, or you have a hard time accepting even justified remarks, take a look at the relationship side of the message. It can heavily interfere with your ability to accept feedback, if you subconsciously decide that the person providing the feedback is not in the position to tell you. How you analyze the relationship level also reveals a lot about yourself. Maybe you don’t want to accept a feedback because they are not perfect either. While that is a hundred percent true, it also tells me that you feel insecure about yourself.

Feedback in the workplace most often is not meant to be taken personally – but the way in which it is uttered may be quite crappy. In that case, it’s really the best to be the better person. Take it, sleep over it, and come back to it the next day. It will not help your collaboration if you reply in the same shitty manner. Instead, how about letting them know that you thought a lot about their feedback, and that you had feedback for them yourself, if they want to hear it? This way, you allow them to keep their face, and offer an additional opportunity to apologize (because maybe they really had a hell of a day and your presentation just was the last straw). Additionally, you can ask for more details and learn something from it at last. Ignoring encounters like this one – or even less intense ones, that are not super-duper comfortable – will lead to nothing (except for people stopping to give you feedback). You cannot cut someone out of your work life if they sit in the office next to you. So before it’s too late – open up that conversation and start receiving the messages that are sent to you.

Want more?

A great book on how to receive feedback is Thanks for the Feedback – The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. There’s also an audiobook version if you are more into listening than reading. I can fully recommend it – there was more than one page where I totally recognized myself. Try it out, I promise you that you will enjoy it.

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