There are four possible reactions when someone gives us feedback, depending on a combination of how open we are to the feedback and how confident we are in our own ability to handle and learn from challenges.

Defensive (Low Openness/Low Confidence)
Take the feedback as an attack, whatever the intention behind it. The feedback may be about one small aspect of behaviour or performance, but it’s received as if it was aimed at our identity. Our emotions respond as if it was a threat to our existence.

We might respond by blocking the feedback out and ignoring it, by denying that there is any truth in it, or by getting angry and retaliating. Either way, we learn nothing and damage our relationship with the giver of the feedback.

Dispirited (High Openness/Low Confidence)
Take the feedback on board uncritically, agreeing with every word (at least inwardly) and feeling crushed by it, without checking if the feedback is supported by the facts.

As with the defensive reaction, we take the feedback as if it was a criticism of us at the identity level, rather than a statement about our behaviour, and have a correspondingly strong emotional response.

Even though we agree with the feedback, we may be too demoralised to learn from it and change our behaviour.

Dismissive (Low Openness/High Confidence)
Don’t take the feedback seriously, automatically assuming that the facts of the feedback are wrong and/or that the person giving the feedback is not to be taken seriously.

With this reaction, we are not upset by the feedback, but equally we do not engage with it and so miss out on the chance to learn anything from it.

Open (High Openness/High Confidence)
To be open to feedback, remain calm so that you are not hijacked by a ‘knee-jerk’ emotional reaction. Rather than taking any criticism or praise instantly to heart, you can keep it while you check how it relates to your recollection of the incident or behaviour that the feedback is about.

Also recognise that your first emotional response to the feedback may change when you examine it in a more detached, dispassionate way later.

When you do this, you can accept and learn from any useful information in the feedback, while dispassionately discarding any elements that don’t fit the facts. You will also be able to make allowances if the person giving the feedback is not very skilled at delivering it.

Note that this response requires confidence in your ability to learn and improve, rather than in your current performance level, so you can be open to feedback with any level of ability.

How To Stop Critical Feedback From Sapping Your Confidence

  1. When receiving the feedback, centre yourself. Imagine the critical feedback staying at arm’s length from you.
  2. Imagine viewing yourself and the giver of the feedback from the outside, so you can distance yourself from any emotional impact. Notice the emotional state of the person giving the feedback.
  3. After the event, write a brief one-paragraph description of the original incident and then around a page about what you have learned and what you will do differently. This ensures that when you remember the incident, you will also remember what you have learned.
The Emotionally Intelligent Way To Receive Feedback

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6 thoughts on “The Emotionally Intelligent Way To Receive Feedback

  • Very good blog post, I learned a lot from this.

    Interestingly, research has shown that hearing ANYTHING negative causes huge changes in the brain (and not in a good way). In less than a second, there is a substantial increase of activity in the amygdala and the release of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters.
    Ironically, these interrupt the normal brain functioning, particularly those involved with logic, reason, language processing and communication.

    Hence, it is not impossible to conjecture that ANY feedback that contains even a hint of negativity, even that which is only implied, could have a similar effect.

    One way I recommend to clients when giving or receiving feedback is to move into ‘third position’. This seems to reduce the impact of any implied negative feedback. It is almost as if we ‘trick’ the brain as the criticism is not about ‘you’, it is about the ‘other person’ (the ‘you’ that was doing the task). I have found this to be incredibly effective for giving feedback to others as well as to myself. It removes the cognitive bias towards optimism as well as the dangers that negativity pose.

    Great article.

  • Great article Andy. This model has successfully illustrated all my experiences with feedback, both giving and receiving. I have never seen this model before and would be great to share when developing feedback skills to learners.
    Jamie, thanks also for your contribution, very interesting. Although a question for me is, do we require an emotional response to feedback in order to act on it? and if so is this ‘third position’ effective in producing a personal responsibility to changing?
    I’d appreciate your views?

  • Hi Katerina,

    That is a very intriguing question. The answer to this would, I guess, depend on the person answering it and their view. For instance, one of my Therapy trainers stated that the overwhelming majority of the time, people will only act because of an emotion. I would probably agree with this.

    However this answer could indicate that the use of ‘third position’ and it’s dampening effects (for want of a better term) could therefore negate the desire to act on the feedback. I find this rarely to be the case however. My experience of this is that by combining 3rd position with careful language like ‘the stretch’ you can pass and receive the knowledge and be far more likely to feel a positive emotion. Thereby negating the negative consequences I mention in my first point.

    The model I use combines 3rd position, positive language and what an old sales manager friend called ‘the sandwich’ i.e. good feedback, criticism, compliment.

    A traditional sandwich would be:

    Positive feedback: “You did that really well.”
    Criticism: “But you made this mistake.”
    Compliment: “You have done well so far.”

    However, based on research we know that the brain is much more primed to pick up negatives than positives (overwhelmingly so) and that we need an average of 3 – 5 positives for every negative to balance it out.

    So, in theory, the sandwich above though seemingly balanced to the deliverer has the recipients brain ‘screaming’. I have personal experience of this. When someone delivered feedback like this to me in the past, ALL I would focus on was the negatives.

    So we can change the sandwich through careful words.

    Positive feedback: “You did that really well.”
    Criticism: “and as a stretch when doing this bit you could do x,y,z. Why don’t we give that a go?” (perceived autonomy/control for the recipient which according to self-determination theory is vital for motivation, a key emotion for change).
    Compliment: “You have done very well so far.”

    So we have 3 positives and no negatives whilst using the words/situation to suit self-determination theory and encourage change.

    This begs the question of why use 3rd position and not just positives? Normally, my answer is because use of 3rd position provides a clear and effective way of looking at anything. Also, people do tend to have an ‘optimism bias’ which is ironic because our brains are primed for negatives. This optimism bias means that we often think we are better than we actually are or think we are in a better position than we are. In the field of clients I per-dominantly work with (sales people) this can be a real problem. This can lead to a lack of consistency, taking the foot off the gas etc. 3rd position will help to negate this problem.
    Negating this optimism bias should allow a persons logic and ‘thinking brain’ to come to the fore. Often the thinking part of a person is the part that knows it needs the change (or else why is feedback even being given?) Particularly in a non-therapy context.

    We can then combine this with some wonderful techniques from Positive Psychology (like 3 gifts) which we can bespoke towards the intended change. Again, an example in my client base would be the development of sales people. In training with their Manager, the Manager could use the feedback tools I mention. Let’s say the individual is learning the sales process very well (as a result of training and the way feedback is given) but they are struggling emotionally with aspects of the role like confidence and belief. We can then bespoke 3 Gifts into ‘3 successes’ or ‘3 In-The-Zone Times’ and see their emotions and behaviour change off the back of that.

  • Andy, I just found your site a few weeks ago and I am enjoying your content.

    A simple way of looking at how people receive feedback is based upon their intention.

    Type 1 is interested in self-improvement and will actively consider and implement constructive feedback.
    Type 2 has an inward focus and blows off feedback with rationalizations and stories.
    Type 3 is toxic and seeks to bring down those around them (for whatever reason). These people will never accept feedback and generally should be avoided.

    Look forward to more of your great content in the new year!

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