One of the most important skills you'll ever learn

Of all the skills that are essential to becoming a successful PSE professional, few are as important as knowing how to receive feedback. On its surface, receiving feedback is just that — receiving — something we do passively. But in reality, receiving feedback is more like receiving a pass in football, where we need to catch the feedback with just the right amount of pressure and finesse to carry it forward in the most productive way.

One of the first things to acknowledge about feedback is that receiving it can be a difficult experience for many people. While it’s true that we want to grow and improve, it’s also true that many of us feel like we’re being told that we’re not good enough when feedback is negative. Feedback experts Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen sum up this dilemma well in their book, Thanks for the Feedback (2014), when they write:

"Receiving feedback sits at the intersection of these two needs—our drive to learn and our longing for acceptance. These needs run deep, and the tension between them is not going away."

Stone and Heen go on to argue that rather than an innate ability, receiving feedback is a skill that can be developed with conscious effort and a dedication to improve. In order to do so, though, professionals need to overcome several common pitfalls or "triggers" that prevent many of us from using feedback in a productive way.

  • Truth triggers – for Stone and Heen, these are the aspects of feedback that we reject as being just plain wrong without trying to understand how they could appear to be true from someone else’s point of view. For example, Judy tells Sam that he comes across as arrogant when he delivers presentations. Sam responds by saying, "What are you talking about? Humility is my biggest strength! Ask anyone."
  • Relationship triggers – these triggers are connected to the person who is giving us the feedback. They might be a peer that we feel competitive with, or they might even be a subordinate who seems to be getting a bit too big for their britches. In any case, the response to the relationship trigger is as predictable as it is hard to overcome—attack the credibility and the presumptuousness of the person giving you the feedback. Oftentimes, we can ignore valuable feedback because we’re too busy trying to figure out whether the feedback giver is malicious, or just misinformed.
  • Identity triggers – these triggers can be some of the most upsetting, because they often make us feel as though our very sense of who we are has been shaken. These triggers can often get tripped when we receive negative feedback about something we consider to be a core strength, like when a professional writer is told that their prose sounds hackneyed.

All of these triggers form part of a single response to feedback, which is to focus on anything at all except the substance of the feedback itself. But in The Power of Feedback (2006), Joseph R. Folkman offers 35 principles on how to turn feedback from others into personal and professional change. Among these principles are:

  • All feedback is true to those who give it

  • You will not change what you do not believe needs to be changed

  • Building on strengths is more crucial to improvement than eliminating weaknesses

  • Changing behaviour often requires changing core beliefs

The importance of learning how to receive feedback cannot be overstated. In his book There Is Life After College (2016), Jeff Selingo draws on an analysis of hundreds of thousands of job postings to learn that four of the traits most commonly sought by employers are curiosity, creativity, grit, and humility. Selingo goes on to note that the appetite for these traits suggests that employers are specifically not finding them in new graduates. To that end, we must ask: what better way could a new graduate demonstrate curiosity, creativity, grit, and humility than to improve their ability to receive and learn from feedback?

Finally, it’s important to remember that receiving feedback is all about balance. Once an individual has gotten past the point of immediately rejecting all negative feedback, they need to make sure they don’t fall into the trap of immediately accepting all negative feedback. It’s important to be able to explain one’s decisions without always rationalizing them, and Folkman, Stone, and Heen all agree that this can be a difficult skill to develop. However, the crucial thing to remember is that it can be developed by avoiding common "triggers" and following tried-and-true principles for receiving and learning from feedback.

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