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How to Ease the Pain of Hearing Critical Feedback

By Joe Stych · May 15, 2014
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Feedback is fundamental. Throughout our personal and professional lives, we’re constantly reminded of how important it is to take criticism from our peers—whether it’s the in the form of an annual performance review or a heart-to-heart between friends—and use it to grow.

But it turns out that actually hearing that feedback can be tough.

In their book "Thanks for the Feedback," Doug Stone and Sheila Heen, lecturers at Harvard and consultants on the side, try to unpack why feedback is so hard to take, even when we know it’s good for us.

Why focus on feedback? Well, Stone and Heen co-authored a classic business book called "Difficult Conversations" back in 1999, and since then they’ve been touring the world as communication coaches. "Thanks for the Feedback" focuses on a major pain point for a lot of teams.

Stone and Heen

"The first thing that we do when we work with a group is that we ask them, so what are your hardest conversations?" Heen says. "The first thing that would always come up is giving honest feedback."

So why does receiving feedback often feel like getting kicked in the stomach? During a recent talk at Google, Heen and Stone dissected why we’re so resistant to criticism (even the constructive kind), how people can more productively receive feedback, and why it’s critical to understand your own biases.

Train Good Givers and Great Receivers

Heen and Stone agree: feedback is a skill that can be taught, refined, and harnessed for personal advancement. But most companies only focus on teaching employees how to give good feedback, rather than teaching them how to receive and apply it.

Instead of treating feedback as a two-way street, Heen says most organizations believe that management—the "giver"—must be communicating poorly. Otherwise, wouldn’t their employees take that advice to heart?

"The usual fix for that in organizations is to teach givers how to give. So you get all the managers together, and you train them to give (feedback) more skillfully and more often," Heen says.

But if the receiver shuts down, even the best giver can’t get through.

"It doesn't matter how much power or authority or skill the giver has, the receiver is actually the one who's in charge of what they let in, what sense they make of it, and whether and how they choose to change," Heen says.

In other words: the giver’s advice is worthless if the receiver doesn’t know how to process it.

Feedback Can be Scary

Fielding someone’s feedback is usually touchy, because there’s a strong chance that it will come off as an attack on your personality, values, or work.

"Feedback is hard because we are conflicted about it," Heen says, "and we have really varied experiences with it."

Feedback can be scary

She gives the example of working with a respected mentor or coach: when you receive their feedback, apply it, and get better, it’s exhilarating. That’s the kind of feedback we thirst for.

But there are painful, frustrating feedback experiences too—for example, nit-picky comments from mom, advice from a peer that you don’t exactly consider an "expert," or jumbled criticisms from a friend that only come off as mean-spirited.

In reality, both kinds of feedback are valuable in the right light. Heen points out that sometimes the painful experiences are the ones that we learn the most from. But to glean the benefits, you need to understand why you’re resisting.

"Feedback actually sits at the crux of two human needs. No. 1 is the human need to learn and grow, to achieve mastery, to get better at something. […] But sitting right alongside that is the need to be accepted, respected, loved, to feel safe just the way you are now," Heen says.

Human needs

"The very fact of feedback often suggests that how you are now isn't quite A-OK," she says. "Even though we’re always told and we sometimes experience feedback as a gift, sometimes it feels like a colonoscopy because of this safety question."

Why We Resist Feedback

There are plenty of reasons to discount feedback: the crowd at this particular talk suggested that maybe you don’t trust the person giving the advice, or it’s delivered in a way that feels like an attack, or maybe the message is just muddled. Those are all legitimate reasons for skepticism. Stone says rejecting feedback is OK, as long as we understand why we’re turning it down.

"Often people like me will stand up in front and say ‘look, you’re supposed to take feedback, it’s good for you, you know that, so just get over it and take the feedback,’" Stone says. But generally there are tensions, and Stone says most of the time "we have good reasons for not actually taking the feedback."

The important thing isn’t making an immediate change in your behavior, but rather unpacking what the intent of the feedback was. Why was this person talking specifically about that subject? What reason did they have for bringing it up? Even if you don’t completely agree with his or her criticisms, are there small insights that could spur some sort of improvement?

"Being good at receiving feedback doesn’t mean that you take the feedback," Stone says. "It means that you engage well with it, that you understand it, and then sort it out."

Know Yourself

Part of receiving feedback effectively is knowing how you generally react to criticism, understanding your biases, and in turn trying to counteract some of your flaws.

In other words: Why do you initially reject feedback? Heen and Stone sort the reasons into three categories of triggers:

Three Triggers

1. Truth Triggers

We all sort feedback instinctively: good, bad, helpful, stupid, etc. But sometimes we jump to conclusions. "Often we sort before we even know what the feedback means," Stone says. Nobody would take feedback if they knew it was wrong or unhelpful, but we’re regularly grasping for something false that we can highlight in the feedback so we can dismiss it completely.

2. Relationship Triggers

Why is this person giving you this feedback? Do you trust his or her expertise? If you don’t have confidence in the giving party, your brain could shut out the feedback instantly. This can also happen if you feel like you’re being treated unjustly by a peer. "It could be that you feel uncomfortable by how you're treated by them," Stone says. "If you feel underappreciated, it's like an automatic feedback defeat button."

3. Identity Triggers

Everyone has a set of characteristics that they associate with themselves—consider three adjectives that you would use to describe yourself during an interview. And when our selfhood is challenged, we get defensive. "We all go through life with a sense of who we are—a sense of how we are—and there are ways that we are that matter to us," Stone says. "Feedback represents a threat to how you see yourself." In the end, we reject the feedback not because it’s untruthful or unreliable, but because changing our identities feels overwhelming.

Get to the "Why" of the Feedback

Feedback tends to come, Stone says, in what he and his partner call "labels." People are well-intentioned but there may not be a common understanding. At work, for example, you might be encouraged to "be more assertive" or "speak up in the meeting." But what do these things really mean?

Stone offers this example: if someone says "I don’t like the way those pants look on you," you could interpret it in hundreds of ways. For example, you might assume that the giver thinks you’re fat, or that the pants are poorly cut, or that they’re really trying to help and have another style of pants in mind for you.

He shows this spectrum of assumptions made by the receiver:

Pants assumptions

So the question is: How does the receiver dig under the label and come to understand the meaning of the feedback? Stone recommends the receiver ask two questions of the giver that call to mind feedback has a past and it has a future.

  1. Looking back: Describe to me what provoked the feedback, what do you see?

  2. Looking forward: How would I do it differently, what would be an example?


The aforementioned "Truth Trigger", Stone says, is really a matter of spotting these labels and digging under them.

"Now that you understand (the feedback), you’re in a really good position to figure out: what does it mean, and should I take it? Or are there aspects of it that I should take?" Stone says.

Get Feedback from Your Enemies

While working with corporations on teambuilding and having more productive conversations, Heen discovered that sometimes the people you butt heads with have the best insight into your flaws.

"Some of your most valuable feedback or coaching can come from people that you actually have difficulty working with," Heen says. "If you only ask the people you work with easily, they sometimes don't see your edges."

Just because you don’t see eye-to-eye doesn’t mean you can’t help each other. One of the first steps in cultivating one of these relationships is understanding why there’s friction between you and this person: how and why are you different? Heen also suggests exploring if your roles and values are dissimilar, and if there are other outside forces contributing to your oppositional relationship.

Three steps

Understand Your Baseline, Swing, and Sustain/Recovery Values

Since everyone receives feedback in different ways, Heen and Stone set up a three-variable system for measuring feedback sensitivity: baseline, swing, and sustain/recovery.

1. Baseline

On a scale of one to 10, what’s your general level of happiness? Heen says that everyone drifts towards one average level—from absurdly happy to ceaselessly grumpy.

"One of the reasons baseline is important is that if you do have a relatively low baseline, like you're a two or a three, positive feedback can sometimes be muffled for you," Heen says. "If you have a high baseline, you won’t hear negative feedback."

2. Swing

When you receive positive or negative feedback, how far do you drift from your baseline? For example, some people will be devastated by a negative comment, but others maintain a thicker skin. Heen says that this can also cause tension in teams, since some people’s swings are overreactions, while others seem nonchalant and passive.

3. Sustain/Recovery

How long do you sustain positive feedback? Or, alternatively, how long do you take to recover from negative criticism? Heen points out that the two can exist independently—you might sustain compliments for a short period of time but beat yourself up about criticism, or you could ride the compliment high for too long and inadvertently ignore any criticism.

"Obviously being very sensitive to feedback is challenging," Heen says. "But being insensitive or even-keel in the face of feedback has its own challenges, because sometimes it just won't stick with you."

The "Google Bias"

If you’re in the depths of a negative swing, Heen says, it changes your sense of the feedback itself and who you are. One of the outcomes is what her and Stone have dubbed the "Google Bias".

The Google Bias

"You get one little piece of discrete feedback, and it’s as if mentally and emotionally you actually Google ‘everything that is wrong with me,’" Heen says. "You get 1.2 million hits. There are sponsored ads from your father and your ex and suddenly you can do nothing right."

The duo calls it a bias because your perception of yourself hinges on your search term. If you googled, "things I’m handling pretty well," she says, you’d get 5.2 million hits and have a more balanced sense of yourself. But you don’t do that, instead you lead yourself down a path of distortion, disabling your ability to learn anything from the feedback.

Identity Triggers

How to Ask for Feedback

If you really want sincere feedback from friends, coworkers or family, you need to be straightforward and clear. In other words, Heen says you shouldn’t ask, "hey, do you have any feedback for me?"

"That's a terrible question," she says. "Nobody knows how to answer that question, and it's not clear how honest you want them to be."

Ask for feedback

Instead, she says that you should ask for something simple. "Say hey, what's one thing I'm doing or maybe failing to do that's getting in my own way or that's getting in the way on the team?" Heen says. "Or ask, what's one thing I could change that would make the biggest difference? You'll get something that's very specific and more concrete."

Plus, with direct questions, Heen says you’re unambiguous about wanting honesty.

Don’t Sit on Feedback

Instead of waiting for someone to give you advice, or waiting to give your opinion to someone, Stone says you should act sooner rather than later.

"When you have feedback for someone, or you'd like to learn something or receive feedback, just do it now," he says. "In contexts like this, it's always an ongoing thing."

Feedback should be a two-way street, and it shouldn’t be a once-in-a-while conversation. When you open the doors for constructive comments, and position yourself to receive them, you can perpetually improve.

Credits: Feedback photos 1 and 2 courtesy Curtis Miller. Feedback 3 photo courtesy Becky Jones. Slides from Doug Stone and Sheila Heen's Talks at Google presentation on YouTube.

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