By Kevin D. Wilde
April 21, 2023

Question:  What are some of the automatic, defensive voices that prevent you from fully taking in and understanding feedback from others?

JD is a high potential finance department leader and one of my executive MBA students admitted that he was terrible at responding to feedback.

I am not a very good active listener in a professional setting,” he shared. “I am in the habit of nodding and smiling indicating that I understand the feedback when sometimes I am not sure. I don’t ask questions when I don’t understand because I feel anxious and fear looking dumb.”

High performers in a variety of professions use repeated practice to build “muscle memory.” This preparation enables them to respond in the best way possible in stressful situations automatically. The keys are clarity on the desired response, awareness of any situational challenge, and the repeated practice of a simple routine. The same can be applied to improving your response to feedback. Whether it’s a result of seeking it or not, have a practiced response ready.

In JD’s case, the practice he set was to always ask two questions when listening to feedback. Knowing he was going to ask two questions helped shift his mindset from “don’t look dumb” to “act smart by being curious.” He also prepared himself by creating a ‘go-to’ set of questions. He reported, “I recently went through interviewer training where they taught a model of asking questions of candidates, called STAR. The letters stood for:

  • S – what was the situation, T – what was the task, A – what was the action, R – what was the result
  • I flipped it around and use it when I hear feedback like this:
    S – describe the situation and context of what was going on when you saw me?
    T – what did you see as the task that I needed to do?
    A – what were my specific actions or behaviors you saw?
    R – what was the result or impact of what I did and what could I have done differently for better results?”

To communicate his curiosity to learn vs. being seen as defensive, he would always start with, “Thanks for that. I’m curious to understand that better, would it be OK to ask a few questions?” He added, “now I don’t ask all five all the time, but I am getting better at asking and being more confident.”

Watching Out For The Ego Response

Brandon, an entrepreneur in a small start-up, didn’t need questions to booster his confidence when hearing feedback, it was quite the opposite. “I admit my ego gets in the way and I can be combative. But that doesn’t help me or the relationship with the other person,” he said. His new strategy started with reframing the discussion from “this is About me” (judgement) to this is For me (helping). He has practiced responding with:

“OK, please tell me more?” While I’ll always take someone’s opinion with a grain of salt, I try to write down what I hear,” he later remarked. “It slows me from dismissing or disregarding what I hear. Everyone has an opinion and I try to pause, take a breath and try to imagine their point of view rather than from my ego.”   

Either JD’s or Brandon’s old habits of not responding well to feedback might sound familiar to you. Or you might have other defensive reactions that might cause you to miss an improvement tip or two. Executive Coach Stephen Miles reminds us how important it is for leaders to respond well noting, “the way you receive feedback is a proxy of your maturity. You don’t want to be that person when a senior executive is thinking about an open role and remarks, ‘I wish Steve had a little bit more maturity but he doesn’t so we are going to look over him and give the job to someone else’.”

Four Steps to Build An Open Response

One of the ways to bolster your response-reaction is to reflect back on your past feedback experiences and reactions. 

  1. Think about a time you improved based on feedback. What was the situation? What did you do and others do that helped you respond well to the feedback and improve? What were you thinking to yourself that helped?
  2. Identify a time you missed the opportunity to respond well and instead reacted negatively? What was the situation? What did the other person do? What did you do or not do? What were you thinking to yourself that didn’t help?
  3. In comparing the two situations, what can you observe about your patterns when receiving feedback?
  4. What guideline or rule of thumb can you create that will help you move into your receptive, learning zone when receiving feedback? Next time, how can you practice responding openly and positively?

Practicing an open, positive response is the key. Rather than wait for the next time feedback is headed your way – perhaps in a high stakes relationship or situation – seek out low risk practice opportunities. In JD’s case, his small-step practice was to try out the STAR questions by asking about his presentation at a recent low-key staff meeting. Later he would be presenting to management and used the early feedback as a warm up. Brandon also found more casual settings to practice his note-taking and empathy approach to feedback.

To respond well takes practice. Identify your own reminder to respond openly and try it out. It’s an important muscle you’ll strengthen over time.