Feedback is the fundamental ingredient to personal growth. Without it, learning and self-improvement become very difficult. There has been plenty written about how to give feedback, in fact only last week here at 8th Light London we were given a workshop on “Giving Compassionate Feedback”. However, there seems to be less written about receiving feedback. Since not everyone we interact with will be experts in giving compassionate feedback, it is probably worthwhile to take a look at how best to receive it.

As software crafters at 8th Light, feedback is an ever present pillar of day to day work. We get feedback from our pair partners, on our pull requests, on our writing, the list goes on. As an apprentice, learning about feedback is an implicit rather than explicit exercise. What follows is what I have captured from my time as an apprentice thus far.

“Don’t you just listen?”

It’s a valid question, isn’t receiving feedback just about listening to what someone has to say? It is, and it isn’t. Assuming that we care about the feedback or the person giving it, we should listen. Once we’ve done that, we are in a position to decide what to do with that feedback. We could draw this whole process into four steps:

  1. Listen to feedback (assuming verbal feedback)
  2. Decide whether we want to accept or reject it
  3. Create a plan for what we are going to do with the feedback
  4. Execute that plan

I would like to talk breifly about how to listen. It feels like a skill we should probably all have, but in the era of smartphones and the internet it’s worth pointing out some basics. The best way to listen is to stop doing whatever you are doing, and look the person in the eye. Not only does this let the person know you are listening, it actually aids your concentration and the amount of information you take in. This can be further improved by taking notes on the feedback you are receiving. Avoid playing with a smartphone at all costs, not only is it likely to annoy the person giving you feedback, it will reduce the amount that you remember.

“What if you don’t like the feedback?”

Let’s assume feedback can be negative or positive. People often rebrand negative feedback as constructive criticism, but I think that’s from the same school of coddling as everybody in a race getting a medal. So let’s reign that right in and start talking about the binary version. You either did something right, or you didn’t. Great.

Positive feedback is great because it makes us feel good. Most of us have a ingrained desire of positive feedback, reinforced school and childhood. The problem with positive feedback, is that it doesn’t often give us any information that we can use to improve. It’s more a case of, keep doing what you are doing.

I don’t really subscribe to the idea of positive thinking. That said, I do really like this quote from Norman Vincent Peal -

“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism”.

Negative feedback is the best kind of feedback, because it comes packaged with opportunities to improve. However, negative feedback can be the hardest to hear. Often we can become blinded by the negativity and involuntarily turn on our defensive mechanisms. This reaction is what I want to focus on.

“How should you approach negative feedback?”

Shout and scream back! Who does this person think they are, they don’t have the right to talk to you like that! Or…

Try to resist your instincts, and allow your logical brain to engage. Daniel Kahneman talks about the fast and slow brain. The fast being crudely summarised as your instinctive reaction, fight or flight mechanisms etc. While the slow brain is what engages when making reasoned decisions. It is hard to override your immediate reactions with the slow brain, since it inherently engages after the fast brain. However, given enough time (which can just be a few seconds), we can start to use this slower part of our brain to alter the way we deal with feedback.

The fact is, when receiving negative feedback our defensive responses engage because we are associating the situation with one of “danger”. When we engage the slow part of our brain we determine to what extent we are actually in danger. In doing so we can start to have open, honest conversations that allow for learning.

A good method for dealing with feedback is immediately re-framing it in your mind. If you “see” negative feedback as stressful and disheartening it will likely turn out that way. If instead you approach it as productive and useful, then it can help to make you more effective at receiving it. Priming yourself in this way is a common tactic to modify the effects of any stressful situation.

“How should you respond to negative feedback?”

Having primed yourself to receive negative feedback. It still remains to respond to it. This is a great opportunity to learn, and can also help to alleviate any lingering “danger” sentiments. At this point I think there are two possible situations, either you understand what you did wrong, or you don’t. In both situations, a great way to respond is with a question.

You don’t understand what you did wrong

I’m not sure I understand what I got wrong here, can you explain it further?

If I had approached it this way, would that have been better? Why?

You understand what you did wrong

Just to clarify, I did “this” wrong, but if I’d done “that” it would have been better, is that correct?

Asking questions is appropriate in both cases, not only does it help you to improve, but it also gives the feedback “giver” the sense that you are willing to try and learn.

“What next?”

The final step is to make sure that you follow through. Implement a fix to the mistake if sensible. Otherwise, take your notes from the feedback and set a point in the future to review them. Where possible, making the change is the better step since “doing” is a very effective way to learn. However, in circumstances where you cannot apply the feedback immediately, try to set some time in the future to review it so that you don’t forget it. The greatest power of feedback is in granting the ability to improve, do not waste that chance.