How to Receive Feedback without Frustration

Find out how to take the fear out of feedback and make it fruitful for your personal development.

Your boss tells you at your performance review: "Your performance is OK." Your partner reproaches you: "You never listen!". Your team colleagues judge you as "unapproachable" and "aloof". What does feedback like this do to you?

If you can deal with it confidently - all the better! If you find it frustrating, then read this article.

Receiving Feedback Is more Difficult than Giving It

We know: Feedback is good, it helps us in our (professional) lives. We should actively ask for it!

Why are we so reluctant to do so? Because we are afraid of feedback or think we can't handle it. Receiving feedback is more difficult than giving feedback! (For more information on giving feedback, see the article "How to Get Your Feedback Right").

Our negative reaction to feedback comes about because we often misinterpret it and quickly find ourselves questioned. This can even happen with positive feedback: "What, my performance is only OK, nothing more?"

We will show you how to interpret feedback correctly, how to handle it better and how to use it for your personal development. We draw on the book "Thanks fort he Feedback" by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen from Harvard Law School.

Feedback Triggers Reactions on Three Levels

Feedback challenges us on three levels:

  • Truth: Is the feedback true or untrue? Fair or unfair?
  • Relationship: Who gives the feedback and what is the relationship between this person and me?
  • Identity: What does the feedback do to my self-image?

Tip 1: Take a neutral view of the feedback. Both in terms of the content and the person. Don't immediately question yourself.

Feedbacks Have Different Purposes

Stone and Heen distinguish between three types of feedback:

  • Appreciation: see, recognize, thank
  • Coaching: helping, improving
  • Assess: classify, check expectations, decide

All three are valuable. Unfortunately, they tend to get mixed up. You may expect coaching and receive appreciation instead. Giver and receiver in this case are not on the same page. This leads to misunderstandings.

Tip 2: Think about where the feedback is coming from and what it intends. If this is unclear, ask!

Examples of misunderstandings in coaching and assessment feedback

Coaching feedback

Said: "Be more self-confident". Heard: I have to act like I know, even if I don't. Meant: Be confident enough to admit that you don't know something.

Assessment feedback

Said: "You achieved level 4 out of 5 this year". Heard: "This year I achieved the same level as last year, even though I tried even harder. Effort is not worth it. Meant: Nobody reaches level 5, only a few reach level 4. You've done it twice. Great work!

Tip 3: Get a second opinion if you think the feedback is inaccurate. This will help you to categorize the feedback and discover your blind spots.

Relationship Triggers often Lead to a Change of Topic

A strong reaction in you to a feedback is often triggered simply because it is expressed by a certain person. It is then not primarily about a thing that concerns you, but about the relationship between you and the person giving the feedback.

Such so-called relationship triggers often lead to topic changes: The feedback recipient does not respond to what has been said and introduces a new topic into the discussion - and thus distracts from the actual topic.

An example:

Team leader: "You haven't reached your monthly target."

Team member: "Why do you always say that to me when I'm just about to finish my working day?"

The team leader wants to talk about the monthly target, the team member signals that the team leader often catches the wrong time to discuss such things.

The disadvantage of changing the topic is that topics get mixed up, the advantage is that a certain topic is put on the table at all.

Tip 4: If you have a reaction that leads to a change of topic, suggest talking about both topics. First about the more important one.

Tip 5: Accept feedback from all people equally benevolently and equally critically, regardless of how well you like them. All feedback is valuable to you!

Problems often Affect entire Relationship Systems

It is not uncommon for several people to contribute to a problem. This is the case, for example, when people have roles in companies and these are not clearly defined and delimited.

Tip 6: Consider the roles and people separately. Don't take all the blame, but don't accept that others reject blame either. Take responsibility for your contribution to the problem.

Emotions Can Make Feedback a Challenge

Feedback can trigger strong emotions. These heighten your reaction to the feedback. This can lead to you perceiving feedback as a threat and feeling attacked or threatened in your identity.

Tip 7: Look at feedback soberly and put it into perspective. Don't be fooled by your interpretation and think about what the feedback is and what it is not. It helps to imagine that you are an objective observer.

Tip 8: Treat the feedback more as coaching and less as evaluation.

Tip 9: View feedback as an opportunity to grow rather than a threat. This will make you more receptive to it and you will be able to make it work for you.

Some additional tricks for better handling of feedback

  • Find out whether your feedback is definitive or negotiable.
  • Listen carefully and keep your inner voice in check that tells you things like "that doesn't apply at all!" or "that's totally unfair!".
  • Remain objective. For example, instead of saying "That's ridiculous, I'm not like that", say "That upsets me to hear because I don't see myself like that or want to be like that".
  • If the discussion boils down to a battle of arguments, take a step back and make suggestions on how the discussion could be more fruitful.

You Don't Need to Accept and Consider all Feedback

You are under no obligation to welcome any feedback at any time. Feedback may be inappropriate or unfavorable at a particular time.

Tip 10: If you are not receptive to feedback, set boundaries and communicate them. Say why you don't want to talk about it now and when might be a better time.

You are also not obliged to change your behavior based on feedback. Feedback is ultimately suggestions that feedback recipients can do whatever they want with.

Tip 11: If you do not see any need for action based on feedback, communicate this. However, offer to help solve the problems raised and suggest options.

Now that you know how to receive feedback in a profitable way, we wish you a lot of insight!

Would you like to know more?

If you want to delve deeper into the topic, you will find many more tips in the book "Thanks for the Feedback" by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.


Hansjörg Schmid

Hansjörg Schmid