Receiving and Responding to Feedback

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn to be more receptive when getting feedback.
  • Learn to recognize the role of choice when interpreting feedback as positive or negative.
  • Learn to identify the benefits of feedback.
  • Learn to employ helpful reframing statements against self-defeating thoughts.
  • Learn tools for deciding whether feedback fits you or not.
  • Learn to increase awareness about how your responses to feedback may come across.

Introduction

Think of how often you ask others for advice or their opinion on an issue and how often you express your own opinions. Receiving and responding to feedback are essential components of our daily lives. Even if you don’t solicit it, others share their impressions of how you perform, act, look and carry yourself– and you react internally and externally.

Every piece of feedback is laden with multiple types of information. Not only do you learn about the content of what is said, but you also may learn something about the person giving the feedback from the way in which they deliver it. You also learn about yourself – feedback helps us increase awareness of our “blind spots,” or the aspects of ourselves that we cannot see objectively. Many people fear feedback and perceive it as primarily a negative experience. However, even critical feedback can bring benefits, and how you choose to perceive it may have an impact on the eventual outcome of your communication.

Receiving Feedback

There is no one right or wrong way to receive feedback. However, if your goal is to have a good working relationship with a colleague or supervisor, hearing her out when she gives you feedback will probably lead to a better outcome than arguing or shutting down. Whenever you find yourself having a reaction to feedback, remind yourself of some of the potential benefits of receiving that new information.

Tip: Think of feedback as something you can choose to ingest or reject. When receiving feedback, take it all in at first and chew on it to see whether it suits you. If you decide that it fits, you can choose to swallow. If not, remember you always have the choice to spit it out.

Here are some tips for receiving feedback that may help you get more out of the experience:

  1. Be receptive: be willing to hear what the other person has to say. You will have time to decide later whether the feedback fits you or not.
  2. Focus on being present rather than preparing what you want to say: Give yourself time to consider the feedback if you find yourself taking it personally or feel too emotionally charged in the moment. In most situations, delaying your response is fine—it usually indicates that you are thinking seriously about the feedback.
  3. Practice active listening: encourage the speaker to express all of his or her thoughts and hear them thoroughly. People speak more freely when they are uninterrupted and when they feel the listener is engaged and paying attention. Getting more information will help you get a clearer picture of the message. People often start out tentatively when giving feedback because they expect the listener to be guarded and defensive too. Acting in a way that contradicts this expectation may serve to facilitate more open conversation [see Active Listening for more].

Getting “defensive”

When others attempt to share their views with us, we may hear them as judgments or criticism, which may cause us to feel threatened. When we perceive something as threatening, we tend to adopt a “fight, flight, or freeze” response—our brains are hard-wired to react that way1—with fight representing an aggressive reaction to defend yourself, flight conveying avoidance, or freeze representing passive acceptance in the moment to avoid further instigation of the perceived threat. This can also be described as “getting defensive.” However, even when others intend to convey disapproval in their feedback, the outcome can be changed dramatically by altering how we appraise the situation and how we react. In fact, many feedback situations that trigger us to feel anxious or defensive may not really be threatening at all—we may seek out or create negativity that is not intended.

Interpreting Feedback

How you interpret feedback can make it a painful or empowering experience. For example, interpreting feedback as critical, static, or final can cause you to become unnecessarily defensive or make you feel as though you’ve failed in your objectives. If you have “analysis paralysis,” meaning you tend to over-think the feedback you receive, feedback can feel more harmful than helpful2. In contrast, interpreting feedback as informational, dynamic or changeable helps you take charge. No matter what has been said, once you have listened to the feedback, it’s up to you how you want to move forward.

Interpreting intentions

Often times, we tend to take feedback differently based on our interpretations of the other person’s intentions. That is, if we interpret the feedback as serving a “helpful” function or having “good” intentions, we tend to personalize it less. On the other hand, when we perceive feedback as having “bad” intentions, being “unfair,” unnecessarily “harsh,” or merely critical, we tend to internalize and/or personalize the feedback more. It bears mentioning that it is usually difficult to confirm with evidence any hypotheses we generate or “mind-reading” we try with respect to the other person’s intent.

Gender differences

Studies suggest that women are more likely than men to internalize negative feedback and take responsibility for perceived failures or mistakes3, 4. Women, more often then men, externalize positive feedback and attribute successful performance to chance, luck, or environmental factors such as “having a good day” or encountering an easy grader. Conversely, men are more likely to attribute their success to their own competence and hard work, and their failures to situational and environmental factors. This suggests that regardless of the intention of the person providing the feedback, men and women often treat the message itself differently.

Reframing feedback to work for you

How you choose to interpret feedback can affect how you think, feel and act. Some experts suggest that all feedback is constructive because it may be considered as a source of confirming or disconfirming evidence that can help you in some way2. One tool for making even the most negative feedback useful is to use reframing statements, that is, formulating more constructive ways to think about what happens. Reframing statements offer us some control over how we choose to perceive and interpret situations. Table 1 offers some illustrations of negative thoughts that may come after hearing feedback, and some examples of how to reframe them in a manner that will help you to adequately perceive and gain control of the feedback situation.

When you don’t have control

While reframing thoughts can give you more control of a feedback situation, there are going to be times when a person’s feedback is about something outside of your control. For example, you cannot reason with someone who dislikes you or views you as incompetent primarily because you are a woman or member of a minority group5. Research suggests that in fields where women are outnumbered, it still takes very little data for a woman to be viewed as incompetent and, conversely, a great deal of success to be perceived as competent6.

Here are five ways to regain control of a feedback situation:

  1. Try using a mental reframe: remind yourself of what you do well.
  2. Find what you can control: ask the person to clarify their concerns and help you understand what you can work on.
  3. Accept that you cannot change or control the other person: focus on your own thoughts and feelings.
  4. Take what you can learn from the feedback: choose an interpretation that will help you meet your goals.
  5. Ask yourself if the feedback is due to bias and/or sexism.

Receiving feedback can be a positive experience, no matter what is shared. Interpreting any feedback you receive as a way to improve can be empowering and can facilitate increased self-growth. However, any interpretations that allow you to feel put down or emphasize what you don’t have control over can reduce your self-efficacy—your belief in your own ability to accomplish something—which, in turn, reduces motivation.

Deciding if feedback fits

Passively accepting feedback that doesn’t make sense to you or doesn’t fit can lead to lower self-worth, interpersonal misunderstandings, conflict, further criticism and/or a lost opportunity to learn from the feedback experience. Just because you heard the feedback, even if you said nothing when you received it, doesn’t mean that you must choose to accept it. Saying nothing in spite of disagreeing with feedback, however, may indicate to the other person that you agree with them if you leave it unaddressed over time. Thus, one of the most important aspects of interpreting feedback is deciding whether the feedback fits you or not.

How to decide if the feedback fits:

  • Ask yourself, does this feedback fit with…
  • …what the person has said about me in the past?
  • …what others have said about me in the past?
  • …how others who are important in my life see me?
  • …my own views of myself?
  • …examples or evidence from similar situations in the past or present?

Other questions to consider:

  • What are other people’s experiences receiving feedback from this person?
  • Does s/he tend to give a certain kind of feedback, have a certain style of delivery, or target certain groups?
  • Are there some parts of the feedback that may fit but others that don’t?

Once you have decided whether and how the feedback fits, you can then move on to the task of deciding how to respond. The following section addresses strategies you can use to respond to feedback and the impression your response may make.

Self-test

Angie submits a draft of her manuscript to her advisor for review. He flips through it and claims, “Looks good. Probably would be a lot better if you weren’t so busy…”

How should Angie interpret this feedback?




The best interpretation in this scenario is “c”. Angie can interpret her advisor’s feedback in a multitude of ways since it was vague and did not indicate anything specific for her to work on. While the statement could easily be interpreted as indicating her flaws as a person—such as those suggested by option “a”—jumping to this conclusion could be harmful by making her feel bad about herself unnecessarily. Option “b” seems viable, in that it picks up on the positive aspects of his comment; however, interpreting the statement with only limited information may lead her to miss out on other potentially useful feedback that her advisor may be trying to convey. Option “d” taps into the words implied by her advisor’s off-handed remark and focuses on something tangible that she can work on. However, depending on the accuracy of the feedback, she may make unnecessary changes when other possible reasons could have been behind the comment, such as sarcasm, or even empathy. The lesson in this scenario is, when you don’t know, ask—not only once but until you are clear about what was meant by the feedback.

Responding to Feedback

How you respond to feedback can be a reflection of your personality and interpersonal communication style just as the way that someone delivers feedback to you reflects something about him or her. The part we usually don’t think about is how much choice we have in how we respond to what they have to say. We can choose to use strategies that are assertive to convey a direct, succinct, and clear response to others that eliminates confusion and helps others see our point of view [see Expressing Yourself], or we can choose other options, such as passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive responses which tend to convey more indirect messages. Table 2 indicates examples of each of these communication styles.

Once you have decided whether or not the feedback you have received fits, you can choose the best way to respond. Keep in mind that even an assertive message may not always elicit the ideal response from the other person because you cannot control the other person’s interactional style. However, assertiveness can help you protect your boundaries regardless of how the other person chooses to respond. Tables 3 & 4 describe possible scenarios of how you can assertively communicate when you perceive that someone’s feedback does or does not fit.

The role of verbal and nonverbal match in responding to feedback

Verbal and nonverbal forms of communication influence the message, and depending on the match or mismatch between your verbal message (the spoken content) and your nonverbal message (e.g., body posture, tone of voice, etc) the message may be interpreted in an entirely different manner [see Active Listening and Expressing Yourself for more on verbal-nonverbal mismatch.]. Verbal and nonverbal communication are not mutually exclusive concepts—you can use any combination of statements and nonverbal means to convey or modify a message. Table 5 illustrates ways that you can acknowledge feedback and delay your response verbally and/or nonverbally.

Ten tips on responding thoughtfully to feedback:

To get the most out of a conversation on feedback and attain your objectives, consider trying out these techniques [see Planning the Message for more on how to prepare your response.]:

  1. Respond to the most salient points of feedback rather than trying to address everything.
  2. Recognize what you have control over and accept when you cannot change the situation. Learn from your mistakes, try to improve where possible, and let go when there is nothing you can do.
  3. Discuss your reactions calmly and assertively even when you are presented with “curve balls” or unexpected issues.
  4. Convey confidence about your expertise verbally and non-verbally [see Expressing Yourself].
  5. Make your response deliberate rather than just reacting to what is said. Sometimes delaying the response may give you more time to consider the feedback and plan your reply.
  6. Reframe self-defeating thoughts. [See Table 1 above]
  7. Build on strengths rather than on weaknesses. For example, discuss what was helpful about the conversation or say something like, “So I’m hearing you say that I have some strengths but if I were to improve in this area, that would make me even stronger.”
  8. Clarify what you heard directly rather than “mind reading” or guessing what the other person thinks. This can:
    • clear up a potential misunderstanding AND
    • bring to the other person’s attention that the statement came across in a certain way [see Active Listening to learn more about paraphrasing and perception-checking] .
  9. Separate intent from impact. Although you may feel hurt by someone’s feedback, the intent in conveying the feedback may not have been to cause harm.
  10. Discuss whether the feedback fits using evidence and examples of past feedback and performance.

Addressing Inappropriate Feedback

Although often the best tactic is to be thoughtful and diplomatic, it’s also important to know when feedback is not intended to be helpful or reflects bias. Experiences with subtle sexism or an array of “micro-inequities” based on stereotyped views of women still abound, especially in environments with few women. Although they may not be illegal like sexual harassment or constitute actionable discrimination, they are nonetheless inappropriate and often harmful to their targets. If you think gendered expectations are operating in the feedback you’re getting and that you don’t have control in the situation, you can decide whether to report your concern.

Self-test

Susie has recently met with her advisor, Dr. Scott, who seemed upset that their experiment hadn’t gone as planned. Although he didn’t blame her directly, he was curt with her during their conversation so she was confused as to whether he felt she was responsible or not.

Susie decided to spend the latter half of the meeting listening to what Dr. Scott had to say and trying to see the situation from his point of view. It seemed to have helped because he calmed down towards the end of the meeting. After leaving his office, she explored how she felt about the situation. She remembered him saying, “I know you worked on this, but I had really been counting on you to monitor the hormone levels so that this wouldn’t happen.”

Susie interpreted Dr. Scott’s feedback as meaning that he believed she made a mistake on her part of the experiment. However, after discussing the situation with her trusted labmate, Amanda, Susie felt that Dr. Scott’s feedback didn’t fit her. Amanda reminded Susie about how frustrated she had been when Dr. Scott had focused all his attention on the guys in the lab and had been very dismissive of her whenever she had questions. Susie realized that although she was responsible for making sure the numbers were right, she had taken numerous steps to reach out and ask her advisor for guidance, clarification, and help when needed but had been largely ignored.

Among the following options, what is the best way for Susie to respond during their next meeting?




The best way for Susie to respond would be to accept responsibility for her contribution to the problem, which is modeled best by answer option “d”—as long as she approaches it in a solution-focused way to prevent future problems. Doing so will open the door for her to adequately address the problem and present her need for increased involvement from him as a solution, in a non-defensive manner. While apologizing (answer option “a”) may (or may not) help improve the relationship in the moment, it sends the message that she is to blame and may elicit more blame, or not help resolve the issue. Similarly, option “b” would cause her to miss an opportunity to problem-solve with his input and may result in repeats of the problem. While “c” may help her to point out some lack of support that leads to problems, this is likely the least desirable approach because it may come across as passive-aggressive, defensive, or confrontational and may cause him to respond similarly rather than brainstorming alternative solutions to their problem.

CareerWISE Point

Learning to receive and respond to feedback deliberately is a valuable professional skill that may help you to navigate potentially tough situations. Feedback is important because it provides information about how you are perceived, how you might improve, and about the person delivering it. Although you cannot control what types of feedback you will receive, the way in which you interpret and respond to the feedback is entirely within your control.

CareerWISE Tips

  • View feedback as an opportunity to learn about yourself—both from what others share with you and from how you choose to react.
  • Practice interpreting feedback from multiple perspectives and as if it has multiple possible meanings. Just because someone says something about you, does not mean you have to accept it or even that it is true.
  • Practice ways to respond to both positive and negative feedback. Doing so will allow you to learn as much as possible from the situation and will help you to be prepared should you find yourself in a situation where you are surprised or taken aback by feedback that you receive.

References

  1. Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.
  2. Folkman, J. (2006). The power of feedback. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  3. Babcock, L., & Laschever, S. (2007). Women don’t ask: The high cost of avoiding negotiation and positive strategies for change. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.
  4. Heilman, M. E., & Parks-Stamm, E. J. (2007). Gender stereotypes in the workplace: Obstacles to women’s career progress. In S. J. Correll (Ed.), Social psychology of gender: Advances in group processes: 47-77. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
  5. Fisher, R., & Ury, W. (1991). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. United States: Penguin Books.
  6. Rowe, M. (1990). Barriers to equality: The power of subtle discrimination to maintain unequal opportunity. Employee Responsibility Rights, 3, 153-163.
  7. Hayes, S.C, Strosahl, K.D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  8. Gunter, R., & Stambach, A. (2005). Differences in men and women scientists’ perceptions of workplace climate. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. 11, 97 – 116. doi:10.1615/JWomenMinorScienEng.v11.i1.60
  9. Settles, I. H., Cortina, L. M., Malley, J., & Stewart, A. J. (2006). The climate for women in academic science: The good, the bad, and the changeable. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30(1), 47-58. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2006.00261.x

Key Elements in Good Advising
The importance of being open and honest with your advisor.

Asserting Yourself in the Face of Authority
The importance of standing up for yourself.

Hearing from Students and Having an Impact
The importance of giving back to students and making an impact in their future education and career choices.

Stubbornness and Tenacity
Highlights the obstacles faced when trying to have research reviewed by the advisor and emphasizes the steps necessary to make adequate progress in the program.

Persuading an Advisor
Suggestions for defining research.

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Anderson-Rowland
The importance of finding a good advisor and making sure to get everything in writing.

Dealing with Assumptions and Accusations (Short Version)
Being accused of cheating and regrets about not being more assertive.

The Importance of Having Positive Working Relationships: A Case Study
The importance of good working relationships and when it's worth putting forth effort.

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