How do you react to feedback? HR consultant Sheila Williams suggests how to receive it

Feedback offers us an opportunity to gain insight into how others perceive and experience us and yet on occasions we resolutely refuse to hear it. This can happen when we have a knee-jerk response to something that hurts us. Given time, we may bring ourselves to consider the view put forward.

But outright refusal to listen and reflect on feedback also occurs when it contradicts or is not consistent with strong beliefs we hold about ourselves, others or the world.

This was the case for Richard, who was unsuccessful in his application for his organisation's leadership development programme. After the selection process, he was given feedback that suggested he needed to focus on developing his communication and interpersonal skills. A specific comment related to the dismissive way he dealt with ideas and contributions from colleagues.

He was quite scornful about the feedback, seeing it as carping criticism. He felt his organisation did not want "charismatic leaders", as he considered himself to be.

Selective hearing

We discussed what had happened during the exercise and this revealed some fixed beliefs that he held about himself and about the nature of leadership. He saw himself as an "ideas person", "dynamic", "direct" "ploughing the way" as he put it. His view of leadership was one of "taking people where I need them to go".

While he considered that he was open to receiving ideas from others, he felt very strongly that if he could see that an idea was "just plain wrong" or "wouldn't work" then he would not be acting as himself if he did not clearly point it out: "It would just not be me." As he saw it, "people can take me or leave me and I can do the same".

Firmly fixed by his view of himself and his beliefs, it was hard for him even to allow for the possibility that he could "be himself" and choose to behave differently. Two months later, Richard resigned.

By way of contrast, Janice, a newly appointed team leader in a large government department, undertook a 360-degree exercise as part of her performance review. When we went through the feedback, she was shocked and hurt, particularly by the free-text section, where direct reports commented on her unwillingness to listen and her apparent need to hear only what she wanted to hear.

Eventually, during the session, Janice disclosed that she found it difficult to deal with all the problems her team brought to her to solve as well as settle into her new role.

We discussed her view of teams and teamwork. These she drew from a particularly successful and fulfilling team she had once been part of.

She described her concepts of teams in terms of "should" and "ought". She believed her team members "should" be able to solve many of the problems between themselves; that they "should not" act childishly, "dumping" all the problems on her. Finally, she admitted that she "just didn't want to listen to them" any more.

Over several sessions, she inspected these "shoulds" in some detail. She explored how she might feel and behave if she let go of some of them. This was by no means easy for her but ultimately she chose to change the way she responded and this allowed her to put different approaches in place.

Tuning in

Is there a solution for selective hearing? Certainly, there are things we can do to help.

We can develop our listening skills. We are rarely taught how to practise active listening: the sort of listening where we give the speaker our full attention and do not wander off into daydreams or anticipate what is being said.

We can reassess our willingness to receive feedback, viewing it as a sincere contribution to our personal and professional growth rather than as personal criticism.

We can learn how to control our emotional triggers: those words, issues, situations or people who set off an emotional reaction that leads us to distort or pre-judge the message. All these will help to tune in a "deaf ear".

Richard chose not to hear vital feedback and failed to recognise how his beliefs limited his leadership ambitions. Janice did choose to reassess her beliefs about teams and found ways to move both herself and her own team forward.

Feedback that we interpret as negative can be difficult to hear and often seems to be criticism. It takes skill and courage both to give and to receive. Nevertheless, if we are willing to listen, to see ourselves as we appear to others and to make considered choices, feedback can be a positive learning and personal development experience, no matter how well or how badly it is given. Are you really listening?

Receiving negative feedback

  • Accept that neither you nor anyone else is perfect

  • Don't be defensive and try to justify your position or behaviour

  • Remember feedback is not an indictment of you as a person. It is one person's reality and you need only accept that it is "true" for them

  • Listen carefully to what is being said. What is the feedback really about? Ask questions to clarify and don't interrupt

  • Think before you respond. Take a few deep breaths. Be honest with yourself: is there any validity at all in what is being said?

  • Choose your response. What you do with the feedback is your choice. Understand the consequences of your choice