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Career Coach: Let feedback work for you

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve” – Bill Gates

“Let me give you some feedback,” your manager says to you, and you automatically feel sick to your stomach. You think to yourself, “What did I do wrong?” Most of us, regardless of the type of feedback we are going to get, initially worry about the pending information we will receive. Experts Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, authors of “Thanks for the Feedback,” write that one in four employees dread their performance review more than anything else in their work lives.

We’ve all heard that feedback is good for us, makes us stronger and helps us to develop. Yet still we react poorly to just the thought of getting criticism. As Stone and Heen point out, we experience a conflict between wanting to learn/improve and wanting to be accepted for how we are.

In fact, research in neuroscience by leadership coach David Rock (author of “Your Brain at Work”) points out that listening to feedback triggers a threat response in our brains. Our possible responses are fight, flight or freeze, and our bodies prepare by releasing extra hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, increasing heart rates and blood pressure, dilating pupils and slowing down other processes such as digestion. He notes that when we receive feedback, we might fight with words, flee by agreeing to everything that is said, or freeze by shutting down and going out of contact.

So what can be done? Stone and Heen suggest that receiving feedback is a skill that can be learned (and improved upon). You just need the right strategies. They also say that you can turn feedback down or set boundaries. For example, you can let someone know you will listen to his advice, but may not take it. Or, you can let them know that you don’t want to hear their feedback right at that time.

To really benefit from getting feedback, there are several strategies you can use, according to Stone and Heen and other authors:

Actively seek feedback. Research shows that those who are feedback-seekers generally have higher job satisfaction, faster acclimation in a new role, and lower turnover. Also, asking for feedback shows others that we are willing to experiment and make changes. This, in turn, is associated with higher performance ratings.

Don’t “take your marbles and walk off” if the feedback is negative. Sulking or withdrawing from feedback giver does not show strong emotional intelligence.

Sort more feedback into a “coaching” bin, rather than an “evaluation” bin, say Stone and Heen. This encourages you to see the feedback as attempts to help you, rather than judge you. Try not to label the feedback as either positive or negative.

Score yourself on how you deal with an evaluation. If your initial feedback was poor, you might rate yourself high on taking the time and trouble to deal with the feedback.

Monitor the actual conversation you are in by: listening (asking questions, paraphrasing, acknowledging their feelings); asserting your point of view; improving the process (observe your body language and process issues); and engaging in problem solving.

Ask questions so you understand the feedback. Personally, I love using the expression “Can you help me understand what you meant by … ” You can’t improve on something if you really don’t understand it. Use a nondefensive tone and body language. State your understanding of the conversation to make sure you did understand it.

Identify one thing to improve. Ask your boss for suggestions of the one thing you can work on or the one thing you are doing/failing to do that is getting in your way. You could even ask several folks and look for common themes. Similarly, ask “What’s one thing I could do differently to help you out?”

Experiment by trying out the suggestion (rather than overanalyzing it). Reframe the feedback so that instead of viewing it as a “change for life,” view it as a something you can try out once — just to see.

Thank the feedback-giver. Let them know you appreciate that they took the time to give you the feedback and say you will take time to address it.

Feedback is a part of everyday life whether we like it or not. We have been getting feedback ever since we were very young (i.e., “you need to do better at defending the goal in soccer”). It comes from all angles—from the advice we get from our families, to the “suggestions” we get from our dearest friends, to the recommendations given to us by our work colleagues. To survive this barrage of feedback, we may want to understand how we receive it (how our brain processes it) and adopt some strategies for improving our skill in receiving feedback.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at



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