The unspoken art of receiving feedback

Love it or hate it, feedback is an inevitable part of any career. PHD's people and development director Manon Pietra explains the right way to take it.

Have you ever been in a conversation where you are receiving developmental feedback and despite knowing fully well that it is important you pay attention, your internal voice gets involved?

You may have thoughts along the lines of, “that’s not true, it didn’t happen that way” or “well, I’ve got some feedback for YOU too”!

Sound familiar? The truth is, even if you have a growth mindset and are committed to self-development, receiving feedback can be really challenging. From an evolutionary perspective, our brains develop in such a way that it protect us from threats. Feedback (especially developmental or negative feedback) can be perceived by the brain as one such threat, which explains why we tend to be fearful or defensive when we receive it.


Interestingly though, when compared to the airtime that ‘giving feedback’ gets, it is a much less explored area of personal development. As an HR professional, I am convinced that skilfully receiving feedback is not only critical to growth, but also to enjoying the experience of growth.

Based on my experience and best practice, here are some pointers to consider if you want to become better at receiving feedback:

Acknowledge you’d rather know

Most people agree they have areas of improvement and are open to working on them. However, no matter how much self-critique or self-development we do, there are areas in our performance and behaviour that are true blind spots.

Hiding in our blind spots are precisely the things that are holding us back, that are getting in the way of our next promotion and driving our teams and colleagues crazy.

This means that if we want to focus our efforts on the areas that matters most, then receiving feedback is imperative. The earlier we accept this, the more energy we can spend on drawing learnings.

The Johari window (pictured below) is a useful model to illustrate this gap between our knowledge of ourselves and our relationship to the outside world.

Understand why you react the way you do

Because of our unique brain wiring, some of us will get genuinely upset or emotional about a small, seemingly insignificant piece of feedback. Meanwhile, a colleague will be barely impacted by a stern talk from their manager.

Research indicates several of these ‘wiring’ variables inform our reaction to feedback:

  • Baseline personality level (whether you are generally a glass half-full or half-empty person);
  • Swing (how intensely you react to either positive or negative feedback); and finally
  • How long you hold on to positive feedback and take to recover from a negative piece of feedback

These variables interact independently from one another, creating a truly unique set of reactions. For those with a high baseline personality – little swing and short recovery – feedback will be rewarding and motivating. On the other hand, someone with short sustain and long recovery will find feedback an incredibly daunting experience.

Interestingly, because our memory is closely linked to our emotions, this also impacts how we remember feedback, as we’re more likely to remember a comment if we had a strong emotional reaction to it.

Ultimately, there’s no point beating ourselves up for how we react, and it won’t be helpful either to tell others they’re over- or under-reacting. Instead, we should focus on better understanding our reactions, which, in turn, can help us develop strategies to constructively receive and put feedback into action.

Don’t rush to react

This is especially true if the feedback feels quite personal as you’re likely to get defensive. Simply, observe the thoughts that pop into your head initially. Likely, your first thought will be to explain or defend yourself, which is a sign you are trying to shut down the conversation.

Instead, practice opening the conversation even further (hard to do, I know). Ask questions: “Can you give me an example of when you have seen me be/do [whatever the feedback giver said you were or did]?”; “If I take your feedback on board, what would be different in one or three months’ time?”.

You’ll often find that if you dive deeper into the feedback instead of shutting it down, it’s not as bad as you initially thought, and you’ll get a better idea of what to do, should you decide to act on it.

Write it down

I recommend doing this during the conversation or immediately after, before your internal monologue gets involved or you forget anything. If you are the type of person to get alarmed by negative feedback, the ability to read the actual content will allow you to separate the feedback from the story you’ve created about it (i.e. the feedback was about this presentation I just gave [fact], not that I am a terrible person and will get fired [the story you’ve created]). Conversely, if you are someone who doesn’t get phased much by feedback, writing it down will help you remember and revisit the feedback to act on if you so choose.

Say thank you

If you’ve ever seen this hilarious comedy sketch by Amy Schumer, you may know what I’m talking about…

We tend to deflect positive feedback instead of accepting it, which is yet another version of shutting down. Taking in praise, is as important as being open to and taking on board developmental feedback. Next time someone gives you positive feedback, simply say thanks. This will encourage people to give you honest, constructive praise more often and open the door for them to give you negative feedback (which you now want!) next time. At the end of the day, it is up to you to decide whether you want to accept it and improve yourself further as a result of it.

Manon Pietra is people and development director at PHD.


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