The Art of Receiving Feedback and Why it's Your Friend

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by Melanie Allen

It's interesting that there's so much literature about how to give feedback and not much about receiving it, which is arguably more difficult. Let's face it; it's not always pleasant, particularly if it's negative. In this article, I hope I can help you to see it as positive and helpful. Then you're on the way to welcoming it and improving your expertise.

Why is feedback so important?

We learn most of what we know by doing. In a new job, a new role or even in a new situation at work, we're thrown in and expected to get on with it, learning as we go. We find out whether we're doing well or not from feedback, either as tangible or visible results, from the people involved, from a boss or from a mentor. In the process of learning by doing, feedback is the single most important tool.

Get the mindset right

Think about it. If you're having driving lessons, dancing lessons or golf coaching, what are you paying for? Yes, you get the know-how explained to you, but in itself that isn't enough. It would be laughable to learn to drive from explanation alone. Even if you are self-taught, you will have learned by trial and error (i.e. giving yourself feedback and correcting yourself) as you go. So, going back to the original question - what are you paying a driving instructor, a dance teacher or a sports coach to do?

Actually, you're paying for constant feedback from someone who knows more than you do.

In those situations, do you dread feedback? Avoid it? Argue and fight it? No. Why? Because you know it's the way to learn and improve. You are gaining from someone else's experience. 

Back in the workplace

Somehow, getting feedback in a work situation seems different. It may be to do with defending your position, fear of failure, fear of exposure or fear of personal criticism. It feels more personal, though in fact it is no more so than anywhere else.

Going back to your sports or driving lessons - did you take the feedback personally? Not really - or at least you will have accepted that sometimes it will be hard. Why? Because you know that it's not about you (as a whole person) but about what you're doing (your actions). The trick is to see your work as an ongoing learning experience and to think of it as you would any other learning. Keeping  your driving lessons in mind, when you were in the driving seat, needing to be told what to do next or why the engine was screeching at you, will help you to accept feedback humbly.

Getting feedback is training for free

It's all about perception and attitude. If you can be open to feedback and see it in a positive light - even if it is ineptly given - you are more than halfway to welcoming it. It may help you to remind yourself that:

  • It's about your actions and not about you
  • It's a means to an end - learning and improvement

Ask for feedback

Receiving feedback is much easier if you ask how well you're doing and how you can do better as a matter of course. It puts you in control of the process and you'll be prepared to receive it, with your attitude adjusted accordingly (see the two points in the last paragraph). Asking for feedback brings other benefits, too, for example:

  • It helps to build relationships. Almost everyone likes to be asked for help and to feel useful and valued
  • It's not all negative. You'll hear good things - and sometimes surprising things - about yourself as well!

A model of how it works

However self-aware we are, there are blind spots and unknown areas in our perceptions of ourselves. We need other people's input to get a realistic picture of what we're doing, so that we can improve or just get to know ourselves. The Johari Window diagram, below, was developed in the 1950s by Joe Luft and Harry Ingrams for use in group dynamics (JoHari - get it?). It is a useful way of showing the areas of awareness (both self and others), represented as four quadrants:

The Johari Window


Feedback helps you to make your blind area smaller (increasing your self-awareness), enlarges your public area (increasing your open-ness and accessibility) and encourages you to share more of yourself, reducing your hidden area (increasing your open-ness, again, and co-operation).

 Next steps - how to use feedback

You can act on the feedback you get or not - it's up to you. It's not about taking everything on board and allowing yourself to be shaped by other people, but about being open to learning from others' experience, listening with an open mind, reflecting on what you hear and using it in a way that makes sense to you. If some aspects of it are confusing, unclear or something you don't recognise in yourself, discuss it with someone else that you trust to tell you the truth.

Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

If you are keeping a documented CPD, make a note of any feedback you get either formally (from coaching or training and appraisals) or informally (in the course of your everyday work - from anyone). Then you can reflect on it and decide what to do with it.


Related Article:

Continuing Professional Development (CPD) – An Overview

You might also be interested in our new interactive CPD eGuide.

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