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Feedback – why it’s hard to hear and how to make it safe

Organisations spend a lot of time saying that feedback is good and encouraging their staff to seek it out.

Words like ‘growth’ and ‘stretch’ come to mind.

But on the flip side is the very real possibility that it might hurt, we might disagree with it.

And, frankly, we might simply just not want to hear it.

Why feedback?

Feedback is presented as pivotal to self-development, when it comes to teams and effective behaviour.

We use feedback in a number of ways: 

  • every time we have the (dreaded) performance discussion
  • every time we present something to a team or another individual
  • and even when we run an idea past our life partner

It’s what you see on their faces; how they respond.

And it’s pretty much outside of our control.

Feedback in action

When I was younger, attempting to scale the career ladder, I was asked for feedback on some written work by a group of external colleagues.

I remember being rigorous in my review. And looking for everything that seemed amiss – I have no idea whether those friends at the time remember the feedback.

But I remember their retort to my feedback: “harsh” was how they described it.

“Harsh” was how they were describing me.

And that’s the rub about feedback – it can disrupt the essence of our identity. 

Author Sheila Heen, who specialises in difficult conversations talks about “the need to be respected and accepted as we are now”.

And that’s often what is at risk when offered feedback.

Learning to receive feedback

Heen suggests that rather than spending hours training managers on how to give feedback – and yes there is value in that –

That instead we spend more time equipping people to receive feedback.

When it’s great feedback

Even when the feedback is glowing.

Or full of acknowledgement.

I’ve seen people diminish it, become self-effacing, and even dismiss it as their merely ‘being lucky’.


Negative feedback is hard to hear

When faced with negative feedback, responses range from:

  • outright denial to
  • explanations and justification

It doesn’t make the giver of the feedback feel any more comfortable than the receiver.

And often results in our reverting to our corners, vowing never to repeat the experience.

My suggestion for how to make feedback safe

How do we embark upon safe feedback? How does feedback become more friend than foe?

Ask only for one specific piece of feedback.

“What one thing could I do better in coaching you?”

“What one thing could I do better in managing this meeting?”

“What one thing could I do better as a mum?” (And yes, I’ve tried that last one!)

This starts the interaction with you in charge and on a pretty safe footing.

By conceding that you know that there is something you could improve.

And it limits the giver’s feedback, allowing them too to feel safe: they have only one thing to think through.


How to receive feedback

You are under no obligation, even though you asked for the feedback, to accept it.

You still have the freedom to reject any feedback outright.

Or to give reasons for, or justify, your behaviour.

But the best outcome in having only one bite of feedback to digest, is the time to process, reflect on, and discover if something in the feedback rings true.

And to use the feedback to become even more successful.

Over to you

What are your thoughts on feedback? Do you have a story to share about a positive, or negative, experience?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.


One response to “Feedback – why it’s hard to hear and how to make it safe”

  1. known says:

    Great Article!

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