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How Improving Your Receptivity To Feedback Can Supercharge Your Career

The one attitude you can’t succeed without

Matt Trainer
May 23, 2017 · 10 min read

People who are defensive, or bad at receiving feedback, are more likely to damage their careers, sabotage their relationships, and generally suffer from lower levels of happiness.

To drive a highly successful career — one that lets you outpace others in your field — you need to have a positive mental attitude toward receiving feedback.

In his book Ego Is the Enemy, bestselling author Ryan Holiday writes:

Many of us insist the main impediment to a full, successful life is the outside world. In fact, the most common enemy lies within: our ego. Early in our careers, it impedes learning and the cultivation of talent. With success, it can blind us to our faults and sow future problems. In failure, it magnifies each blow and makes recovery more difficult. At every stage, ego holds us back.

Highly successful people admit that they have much to learn, and they know how to open themselves to others who can show them the way — in all aspects of their lives.

Becoming more receptive to feedback, even a little, can have a massive positive impact on relationships and performance.

To move beyond ego and into a state where you can humbly learn from others, you need the right attitude and responses that drive positive change and encourage more feedback in the future.

This article will guide you in five core practices that can make you a feedback-receiving pro: building self-confidence, expressing gratitude, asking questions, following up, and actively sourcing more feedback.

With enough practice, you can transform your life and the lives of those around you for the better. If you’re a leader, this transformation can also ripple outward to the rest of your team and build up a strong culture that outperforms most others.

Sustaining personal and professional growth leads to outsized performance and happiness, and these practices can help you grow faster than you ever thought possible.


Believe in Your Worth

Accepting feedback effectively requires the self-confidence to admit to having room for improvement. Our feelings of self-worth are tied to how we feel about our work, but to improve and do good work, we have to have the strength to accept negative feedback.

Low self-confidence can ruin how we receive feedback in two ways: The feedback either crushes our willpower and positive attitude, or it drives us to stubbornly defend our actions.

As a manager of a 25-person team, I often get feedback on meetings I’ve led, on my composure during tough debates, or on my delivery when speaking. When that happens, I have to compartmentalize the feedback while recharging my self-esteem.

Recharging self-esteem can happen via self-care, completing challenging activities, and positive mental framing. For me, a single standout experience at age 17 permanently changed how I thought about self-esteem.

I was a bit depressed, as teens can be, and my father—a psychologist and substance-abuse counselor—sat down with me in his home office. He asked me how many things I thought I was good at. I responded with a shrug and didn’t come up with much. He gave me homework: Write down 20 things I was good at, and then come back. I rolled my eyes and struggled to reach 20.

When I showed my father the list, he smiled and said, “Great, now go write 20 more.”

I balked and argued but ended up writing the second list faster than the first.

After the fourth list of 20, I got the point. The more I looked for what I was good at, the easier it got. The more things I came up with, the better I felt. It was mental training that rewired my brain toward natural positivity. Now, more than a decade later, I still use this technique whenever I’m falling into a funk, and it helps me bounce back from all kinds of criticisms and setbacks.

That’s an example of the positive mental reframing that psychologists recommend.

Regardless of how you’re feeling, remember to separate your sense of overall self-worth from the feedback you hear. You’re not being told that your life is a crashing failure, only that one thing could be done better.

Express Gratitude

For many of us, our first physical response to feedback is fear and stress. You hear feedback and feel your heart rate increasing, muscles tightening, or neck growing hot. These are all red-alert signs that your fight-or-flight response is activating. You can’t absorb feedback unless you deepen your breathing, take a step back, and focus on the opportunity to improve your relationship with the person giving the feedback.

I’ve been in numerous email threads where a criticism or counterpoint was delivered and a reply came back within 10 minutes that contained harsh language, offensive personal statements, or a diatribe of one-sided points. These responses damage relationships and lower the reputation of the person writing. I’ve seen hours of work spent unwinding responses like these, all while the person who sent the response stews with regret.

That’s a typical cycle for someone responding in anger while their fight-or-flight response is highly active.

The thing is, feedback is hard to hear, but it’s also hard to give. Instead of concentrating on your own defensive feelings about what you’re hearing, try to refocus your attention toward the person giving the feedback. They’ve taken the time to tell you something that they notice about you. This could be really helpful for you.

The first thing out of your mouth after receiving feedback should be “Thank you for the feedback.” Verbalizing this gratitude lowers the sense of conflict for yourself and the person who just delivered feedback. It rewards the behavior of providing feedback and reminds you to be grateful instead of defensive.

Ask Questions

Argument or negation stops healthy dialogue and looks petty. When you receive feedback, remain curious and seek understanding of why someone brought this to you. Most likely, you’re missing a blind spot in your behavior, and seeking specifics or asking about the impact of your behavior can illuminate something you might badly want to improve.

The goal is not to counterargue by asking questions like a prosecutor, but instead to be creative and curious in “trying on” a new perspective. Executive coaches often recommend avoiding questions with “why” in them, for instance, because they tend to sound defensive or accusatory and set the wrong tone. Instead, try techniques like active listening or playbacking, where you repeat or try to rephrase the feedback without judgement. This shows the person that you’ve really listened—and it provides the chance to clarify in case you misunderstood.

Putting that together in a, example, someone might come to you and say that they heard you talk over a colleague in a meeting. Bad responses would be “Why not? Wasn’t my point valid?” or “They were talking way too long, anyway.” Instead, you might say, “Yes, I jumped in before they were finished. Is this something you’ve noticed before?”

You also might want to internalize this questioning instead of diving into it with the person right away, especially if you received the feedback in a group setting (where stakes are higher), or if you can feel yourself physically or emotionally tensing up and need a break before approaching the topic.

The point is to drive understanding quickly and serenely. The longer it takes for you to “get it” or at least try it with a healthy attitude, the harder you’re making it for others to coach you.

Follow Up

Even if you appear to take feedback well, people will be watching closely to see whether you act on it successfully. The first step is to make a verbal or written commitment to show that you’ve internalized the feedback and that you have a plan for correction.

I’ve seen top leaders within Facebook speak to the whole company about tough feedback they’ve received and their plan for addressing it. An example is one leader (who runs a thousand-person organization) who wrote a post admitting to being a jerk. The organization had received this feedback from multiple sources, and it was a character trait the leader was distraught to learn was widely held. The leader not only vowed to treat others with more compassion, but also asked to be checked both publicly and privately if others saw regression toward bad behavior.

I can’t imagine how tough a post like that must have been to write, but it got resounding positive support, and I’ve seen that leader flourish and continue to grow ever since. It was a real turnaround moment in the person’s career.

Changing is hard, but commitments like the example above force you to be accountable and give others space to help you in your journey to grow.

Keep in mind that after receiving feedback and committing to change, it is also important to later reconnect with the person (or people) who provided the feedback. This demonstrates continued reflection and activity on your part and creates another opportunity for you to learn whether you’re hitting the mark.

Reconnecting is a key moment in the mind of the person providing the feedback, because it explicitly shows how deeply you value their perspective. Getting this right can make the person much more likely to bring you feedback again.

Actively Source More Feedback

No one improves without practice, and the same is true for receiving feedback. You must train yourself and others in the art of exchanging sensitive feedback. That begins by asking for more feedback.

People need to know what works for you, and they need know what you’re looking for. The more specific you are, the easier it will be for someone to feel safe saying something they might otherwise fear would upset you.

For example, you might ask a co-worker to watch your upcoming presentation for filler words like “um,” “like,” or “kind of.” Or you could catch a colleague in a hallway after a meeting and ask, “Was I backing up my ideas with effective facts, or was I overwhelming the team with too much information?” This lowers the stakes and focuses the person on tangible observations and either/or answers that are easier to navigate.

Remember to guide the person away from easy compliments. You’ll need to explicitly ask for hard feedback or say something like “even if you think I don’t want to hear it” to clear the air for honest and meaningful answers.

By asking for meaningful feedback more often, you can train yourself to master an attitude of gratitude, openness, and action that will become second nature to every relationship in your life.


Practice Throughout Life

So those are the five core practices for receiving feedback like a pro: building self-confidence, expressing gratitude, asking questions, following up, and actively sourcing more feedback. Using these skills, you can access a wealth of personalized feedback that will transform your career for the better. You’ll become someone who will never stop learning and growing.

This goes beyond yourself to influence your impact on others. Every time you take hard feedback with gratefulness and curiosity, you increase the likelihood that others will reciprocate. Every time you reconnect to ask a colleague how you’re measuring up, they’ll gain faith in you. And this applies just as strongly outside the workplace — thanking a friend for an ego check will bring out their smile; showing your spouse that you truly get what they’re asking for will grow your love and mutual respect. Every conversation in any relationship can become a mutual gift exchange.

So, give up being unchallengeable, needing to be always right, or being the smartest person in the room. There’s so much more you can still learn. By asking for feedback and receiving it well, you can build feedback-rich relationships that enable reciprocal learning both at home and at work.

The people who constantly learn and grow outpace their peers and climb to success faster. Not only that — their journey upward becomes more enjoyable and rewarding as relationships improve and honest sharing is cultivated.

The next time you feel yourself bristling with frustration when you receive feedback, remember that this is exactly what you need to achieve your most important goals in life. Feedback is a gift — a life-changing one — if you know how to handle it right.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Thanks to Coach Tony and John Yi

Matt Trainer

Written by

Head of Facebook Partnerships Program Management by day. Writer by night.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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