It’s crazy to think about how anxious and stressed I used to be, even just a few years ago. It seems so obvious now that one of the biggest positive changes in my life has been receiving feedback — not the feedback itself, but how I actually take it in.
I used to have a natural tendency to hold onto the bad and dwell on it, really picking apart each syllable and deciding just how badly I fucked up, only to relive it again and again. If I got feedback, even if 90% was great and 10% was “room for improvement,” I’d obsess over that 10, and completely lose the other 90.
When I first moved down to Los Angeles and started working in tech recruiting, I reached out to a head honcho over at Riot Games. He suggested one thing: read Thanks for the Feedback. It turns out I wasn’t the only person that digested feedback in this hyper-critical way! This book helped me learn to hear and weigh positive feedback as well. And, oh my god, it’s been such a relief for my mental health. While I highly suggest the book to anyone and everyone, here are some of the key takeaways that helped me:
Feedback is Critical to Growth
We’re not perfect. Even Obama wasn’t perfect (although it may feel like it in retrospect). And I’m no Obama. If you’re comfortable with who you are, that’s great! But there is always room to grow and improve. That said, we relive time-capsuled moments thanks to everyday things like social media and performance reviews. We’re used to defining ourselves through finite moments and static images of our best selves. I can be happy with the work I’m doing and the things I’ve achieved, but there’s always room to grow. If you’re looking to advance and adapt, you need objective information on what can be improved, as well as who you are outside of that one, shining best-of moment. Personally, the blow of hearing difficult feedback is softened by thinking that I’m just one temporary version of myself — the best is yet to come, and this information will help me get there.
Three Types of Feedback
Stone and Heen build Thanks for the Feedback from the idea that feedback isn’t just generic, one-size-fits-all. While we tend to lump all forms of feedback into one catch-all, it really comes down to three parts:
- Appreciation: feedback that builds a relationship between people and affirms that you’re valued. This can be acknowledgment for a job well done, or motivation to keep going.
- Coaching: feedback that communicates an opportunity to improve. This can be about your knowledge, skills, or overall capabilities.
- Evaluation: feedback that communicates who you are in that moment, at least in one specific area, and where you stand. How are you performing? Are you meeting expectations?
It’s important to actively listen and categorize feedback into those three buckets. If you’re able to do this, you can consider each as they were intended.
Everyone Listens for Different Things
Stone and Heen really drive home the idea that the person giving the feedback doesn’t inherently understand the person receiving it. This was an aha! moment for me. If I go into a one-on-one meeting with my boss and ask for feedback, it’ll fall into one of those three buckets, but maybe not the one I was looking for. Once I understood the difference, I was able to thank my boss for the feedback and ask for more information based on the type of feedback I needed: “I appreciate you saying that I did well on XYZ, and I was wondering how I could improve ABC.” This gets the ball rolling on actual improvements and better overall communication!
Feedback is Already Filtered
You’re coming into a conversation with someone who’s seen something and wants to communicate with you about it, positive, negative, or otherwise. That means two things:
- They’ve observed something and have information for you
- They’re interpreting their observations as best they can, in order to communicate them
The problem is that during that communication process, many people try to provide additional insight, adding to the information they’ve perceived. They’re embellishing, providing possible reasons or effects from what they’ve noticed, or giving their personal take on it. Chances are they’re not being specific — and it’s only natural to softball it in. Nobody wants to be blunt and hurt your feelings, especially not a good manager, or a friend. So when they come up with excuses, plausible reasoning, or unintended effects of the behaviors they notice, they’re probably not spot on. It doesn’t mean the advice or feedback isn’t valuable. So even though we have the natural tendency to disregard feedback if any one portion of it is untrue, try. We have to actively look for the truth inside these blanket statements in order to improve.
We All Have Blind Spots
My perception of myself will never be a perfect match for your perception of me, my manager’s perception of me, or even my mother’s. We’re so accustomed to just being ourselves and inherently understanding our own points of view, but we can’t watch our own expressions, hear our own voices, or see our own behaviors in every interaction. We need feedback to gather information on what we’re just not seeing.
Stone and Heen suggest thinking of feedback as one of two mirrors. We all want to see ourselves in the best light, in the mirror that tells us we’re perfect — or as close to it as we can get. In feedback speak, this book dubs it a “supportive mirror,” telling us who we are at our best. However, that’s not who we are all the time. If feedback is constructive, it’s likely the “honest mirror,” telling us who we are at that precise moment. It’s important to consider this, even if it’s not who we are in our best moments, because it’s still who we are. Sure, it’s not what we want to see, but this is the more valuable mirror for those of us who want to better ourselves.
Consider This Before Giving or Receiving Feedback
The book offers three questions:
- What’s my purpose in giving or receiving this feedback?
- Is it the right purpose from my point of view?
- Is it the right purpose from the other person’s point of view?
It’s also pertinent to consider the tone of voice, setting, and context for any feedback you’re being given. I don’t know about you, but I’ve worked with plenty of managers who thought they were naturally empathetic and, well, really weren’t. It doesn’t make their point of view any less valuable, though!
You Can Reject Feedback, But Understand It First
There can be some cases where the feedback isn’t true or isn’t something you value. That’s okay! You don’t have to take everyone’s advice. Just be sure you really understand what is being communicated to you before you discount it. It’s worth it to really evaluate what you’re saying before you say it — one bad apple spoils the bunch, and one half-truth can disqualify the rest of the feedback you’re offering or receiving. Don’t fall into that trap!
The best thing you can do is make feedback a regular part of your life. Ask for it early and often. My manager and I have weekly half-hour sessions to check in and give each other feedback. If I go in looking for ways to improve, I’ll specifically ask for them, with context. If I just want to know how I’m doing, that’s a fair ask as well. Since learning to really listen for the type of feedback I need, and the truth in the feedback offered, I’ve gotten better at what I do, and built stronger, more rewarding relationships with the people that matter. And hopefully, by understanding how others hear feedback, I’m able to put my foot in my mouth just a little less often.
Tis is a 20-something recruiter, startup enthusiast, finance blogger, and proud feminist-slash-crazy cat lady. Find her on Twitter or check out the blog for lifehacks and musings on personal finance, professional growth, and enjoying the journey to early retirement.
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