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I Just Work Here

Don't filter out the bad feedback

The way we process criticism is critical to become better workers — and people

Rex Huppke

February 17, 2014

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Here's something a reader might say to me: "Rex, I really enjoyed your last column, but I felt you missed a few important points and might have tried too hard to be funny."

And this is what my brain might hear: "Rex, I really enjoyed your last column, blah blah blah blah you're funny!"

Before you accuse me of being a hopeless (and very handsome) narcissist, consider this: We all filter the feedback we receive, often in ways that accentuate the positive and disregard the negative.

And that trait, I'm sad to say, can keep us from reaching our potential, in life and in the workplace.

I wrote recently about performance reviews and the various ways we deliver professional critiques. But I hadn't thought much about how those critiques are received. It stands to reason that the reception is at least as important as the delivery.

A new book called "Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well" gets at this idea in fascinating detail, deconstructing the way our brains are wired and suggesting that we should be more open to criticism.

Early on, the authors — Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, lecturers at Harvard Law School and experts in negotiation — lay out the reality of delivering feedback: "If the receiver isn't willing or able to absorb the feedback, then there's only so far persistence or even skillful delivery can go. It doesn't matter how much authority or power the feedback giver has; the receivers are in control of what they do and don't let in."

While many of us talk a good game about wanting to learn and improve, Stone and Heen point out our competing desire "to be loved, accepted, and respected just as we are."

So when we hear negative — or "constructive" — feedback, our brains tend to diminish the information by not believing it can actually be true, questioning the source of the feedback (this person's always critical of me!) or just rejecting it outright because it goes against our sense of who we are.

Unfortunately, those perfectly natural reactions are to our detriment.

"We actually need other people to see ourselves accurately," Heen said in an interview. "There's no getting around that. You can't go off to the top of a mountain and figure this out for yourself. You actually need other people's input. It's like a shared challenge to figure out what it is that you're doing that's making a situation harder or worse or whatever."

That's not to say all feedback is 100 percent helpful. But the point the authors make is that even if 90 percent of a person's feedback is off base, the 10 percent that's helpful is worth examining.

"This isn't about having long, seven-hour, dramatic conversations," Heen said. "This is much more about, 'How do I learn from life? How do I lower the stakes and anxiety for myself and actually get more value out of the whole exchange?'"

While the book offers extensive advice on ways to adjust your feedback-reception process, at its heart lies an elegantly simple step: pause a moment before you react to feedback.

Just as we should take a breath before offering a critique — long enough to ask, "Am I phrasing this in the most helpful way possible?" — we should give our minds a moment to honestly examine the feedback that comes our way.

That brief pause can be enough to cut off the brain's natural tendency to get defensive or ignore something that runs afoul of our well-honed identities. Then, once we have hold of the feedback, we can try to sort through it and harvest what's valuable.

The book encourages people to identify their "feedback footprint," the unique way each of us responds to criticism or advice. Whether your tendency is to deny, get defensive or run away, recognizing the pattern will help you alter your response.

Then you need to take the feedback and sort out what it means and what it doesn't mean. Heen and Stone call this "feedback containment." If somebody says, "I thought your presentation was a little confusing," that doesn't mean: a) your entire presentation was a disaster; b) you're a terrible presenter; or c) you've made a complete fool of yourself.

It means that some part of your presentation was, at least to this person, unclear. Rather than get defensive or ignore the comment, ask more questions. What specifically did you find confusing? How could I have made it more clear?

You've gone from beating yourself up over something — and possibly getting annoyed with the feedback giver — to putting yourself in a position to improve future presentations.

It's a simple example, but you get the point. By brushing off feedback, we're letting gut reactions block information that might make us better workers — and better people.

Changing the way we receive feedback isn't easy — it takes discipline, time and a willingness to accept our imperfections. But it's a practice worth considering, particularly the next time we hear constructive criticism as nothing more than, "Blah blah blah."