February 2013

Receiving Feedback Gracefully

ind-2012-iss38-vogtby Jay W. Vogt

Knowing how to receive feedback gracefully is a critical skill in working life. It allows you to learn from constructive feedback and use it to improve. And it helps you stay cool when someone gives you harsh, unprofessional feedback.

Many of us react instinctively, and often badly, when receiving negative feedback, even if it is constructive. Maybe it reminds us of a critical parent or sibling, and we react with more emotion than the immediate situation merits. Instead of learning something, we get defensive. Or we swallow the criticism whole, and slink away feeling embarrassed or ashamed. Neither primeval reaction—fight or flight—leads to learning.

Four Steps to Learning
You can break this pattern by taking four steps any time you receive negative feedback:

  1. Notice.
  2. Ask.
  3. Paraphrase.
  4. Agree/Disagree.

Remember them by the acronym NAPA Think chill—how you feel drinking cool white Napa Valley wine.

1. Notice
The first step is Notice. Notice that you are receiving feedback. Someone is taking you to task or criticizing your behavior. Notice your breathing and how your body feels. Notice that you are starting to feel defensive, or starting to feel ashamed, or whatever is your initial habitual reaction. Remind yourself that you can choose how to react, and this is an opportunity to learn. Engage in a little gentle self-talk like, “Okay, it’s feedback time. I can do this.” I say to myself what soldiers yell when they hear threatening artillery fire raining down, “Incoming!”

2. Ask
The second step is Ask. Ask questions to learn more: “Can you give me an example?” or “How often does this happen?” or “How long has this been bothering you?” Asking questions puts you in the position of being curious, rather than defending yourself. Rather than trying to persuade your critic, you are trying to understand him or her. Any time you are learning, you are not giving way to fight or flight.

3. Paraphrase
The third step is Paraphrase. Paraphrasing means feeding back your understanding of what you have heard in your own words. “So you’re saying that I’ve been disruptive and delaying the team every time I propose a different way of doing things.” Paraphrasing has nothing to do with conveying agreement. It has everything to do with conveying understanding. When you paraphrase someone right, they simply nod or agree. If you don’t get it right, they will correct you, and you will have a chance to do it again.

4. Agree/Disagree
If you have noticed your reactions, you have stayed present. If you have asked questions, you have learned. If you have paraphrased, you have stayed in rapport, even while disagreeing. You have slowed down the conversation and avoided fight or flight. Much of the wind in your critic’s sails is now spent. They feel heard. Now you can state your opinion, and you too can be heard. Agree with what seems true to you, and disagree with what does not.

Most people skip steps one, two and three when receiving feedback. They race right to disagreeing. They get defensive and an argument begins. Or they race straight to agreeing. They inhale the criticism and wilt. You don’t have to be like most people. Think NAPA, and learn from criticism. And if you are so lucky as to receive positive feedback, just smile and say, “Thank you!”

Jay W. Vogt is an organizational development consultant and author of Recharge Your Team – The Grounded Visioning Approach. Learn more at www.peoplesworth.com.