Many of the leaders I coach tell me that receiving candid feedback from their supervisors is difficult. They explain that their supervisors seem to believe that there just isn’t enough time for a feedback discussion.

After digging deeper, I have learned that both the givers and the receivers of feedback, no matter where they are in the hierarchy, believe that the process can be fraught with difficult emotions that can potentially lead to conflict.

The receivers of feedback complain that feedback, whether it is positive or negative, is often vague. As one of my clients said, “I’m not sure what exactly I am being praised for, and I have no idea what I need to keep doing or what to work on to make me promotable.”

On the other side of the feedback process, the givers tell me that they avoid giving difficult feedback for fear of being too harsh, hurting feelings or appearing biased. Surprisingly, both emerging leaders and the most seasoned leaders tell me that to avoid potentially uncomfortable reactions, they either don’t give honest (probably difficult) feedback or they sugarcoat it.

My 36-year-old client Louise has been in a director role for four years. Here is how she describes her dilemma with obtaining the feedback she needs:

    • I don’t know what growth looks like for me in this organization.
    • No one seems to be paying attention to the work that I am doing.
    • My manager often cancels our weekly one-on-one.
    • My direct reports are afraid to tell me about my impact.
    • When I receive feedback, it is mostly positive and vague.

To describe the overall impact these problems have on her, she says: “My confidence is so down!”

Receiving meaningful feedback can make the difference between receiving a promotion or being passed over.

Louise told me that when she does receive feedback, she tends to focus on the negative, feel attacked and spend too much time justifying why she did what she did, which becomes humiliating. Louise’s experience resonates with research by G. Kartini Shastry, Olga Shurchkov, and Lingjun “Lotus” Xia, which found that women repeatedly internalize negative feedback, and which takes a huge chunk out of their self-worth.

The dilemma here is that, without feedback, it is hard to improve, but for feedback to be effective, the receiver must be open and curious to learn what she or he can do differently. Counterintuitively, according to Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s book “Thanks for the Feedback,” the receiver of feedback is the person with more influence.

There is nearly always a kernel of truth (the “2% truth”) in feedback, even in the harshest comment. Being able to see this kernel and learn from it will make a difference in your personal and professional growth.

As the receiver of feedback, you have the power to make the feedback conversation successful, no matter how difficult it is. The receiver is responsible for:

    • Stepping back in order not to be triggered by the feedback.
    • Guiding the conversation to make the feedback specific, detailed and actionable.
    • Looking for the 2% truth.
    • Creating a development plan with suggestions for growth.

Let’s look at how the brain informs our reaction to feedback.

Most of us have an automatic, knee-jerk, defensive reaction to feedback. It is the same reaction our brains have to danger, and it leads to an inability to put negative feedback in a context that can help us work toward our goals. This skewed perception of the feedback process often comes from the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our place in the world.

Our first experiences with feedback come from our family of origin. Our primary caregivers, in an earnest attempt to socialize us, constantly corrected our behavior, and our natural response was one of shame. If we were lucky, we also received some positive feedback, but negative words stick. We tend to hold on tightly to negative messages, and they tend to override any positive messages we receive.

Our brain experiences negative feedback in the same way that it experiences physical pain. It sees it as a direct threat. The latest brain neuroscience tells us that this threat can cause both the giver and the receiver’s stress hormone (cortisol) levels to rise. As a result, the prefrontal cortex, our higher-order thinking, shuts down, and our ability to learn and change is compromised.

No wonder we have a hard time productively receiving feedback: It’s how our brain works. Our need to avoid pain and move away from shame (negative feedback) trumps our need to know more.

Claim your power as the receiver of feedback.

It is in our best interest to learn how to receive feedback as the gift it can be. We all have areas in which we need improvement, and feedback and constructive criticism are important ways of identifying them. We must adjust our mindset and understand that the people who take the time to give us feedback do so because they care enough to invest in us. If they are not giving up on us, why should we? If the feedback is vague and you have no idea what to do going forward, then it is your responsibility to help the giver be more specific.

Done well, feedback is a two-way street. Giving and receiving honest feedback creates equity and balances working relationships. The feedback process both depends on and builds trust and psychological safety.

What can you do to keep feedback from derailing you?

The short answer is to develop your “feedback muscle.” Make asking for feedback a habit, and then make sure to do something with it. Research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman shows that the most successful leaders ask for feedback often, and they are transparent about what they do with it. As they write in Harvard Business Review, “Leaders who ranked at the top 10% in asking for feedback were rated, on average, at the 86th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness.”

Interestingly, one of the ways to obtain meaningful, specific and actionable feedback is to ask for “advice,” instead of feedback, and ask for it often. This approach gives you the opportunity to course-correct and do something about your performance in the present.

How do you receive feedback?

    • Do you automatically justify instead of listening with curiosity?
    • Do you internally respond by trying to disparage the giver of feedback, in order to dismiss the feedback as invalid?
    • Do you mentally disengage, because it is too upsetting to hear the feedback?
    • Do you suspect that the person giving you the feedback isn’t neutral but is holding on to past grievances and therefore inclined to see the worst in you?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you, too, probably resist entering into feedback discussions.

7 Steps to Develop Your Feedback Muscle

    1. Make it specific: When we ask for advice instead of feedback, research suggests, we will receive more specific, critical and actionable information.
    2. Practice: Ask a trusted friend, family member or colleague to give you suggestions on how to improve.
    3. Listen: Make a commitment to listen openly without judgment to what the other person has to say.
    4. Curiosity: Be genuinely curious as you ask for more information.
    5. Listen for the 2% truth.
    6. Experiment: Take notes, and then make a plan to experiment with the suggested changes.
    7. Say, “Thank you”: Always thank the giver of feedback for his or her valuable input.

Once you have mastered the art of receiving feedback, you will notice that the act of giving feedback becomes a breeze. Then, tell me how this approach worked for you!