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Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well


It became a joke.  It’s a simple response that started occurring about ten years ago.  It was “Thanks for the feedback.”  It’s a shortened version of the book title, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.  The product team would say this during sessions with the Microsoft MVPs.  As a group, Microsoft MVPs are passionate about Microsoft products.  We used to get some program managers who took feedback well and others who didn’t.  Somewhere along the line, they got the message, “Thank you for the feedback.”  It acknowledged the feedback and closed the discussion.

However, the most important part is the acknowledgement of the feedback.  The receiver is positively acknowledging that the feedback has been received.  They’ve taken ownership of taking the next steps.

Two Sides of the Coin

This book is another output of the Harvard Negotiation Project.  One of the well-known others is Getting to Yes.  Where it took the perspective of the communicator – the initiator – Thanks for the Feedback focuses on how you can respond better as a receiver.  It’s potentially a harder spot.

The receiver has to “let in” the feedback they’re receiving.  Certainly, there are many people we’ve encountered who have refused to let the feedback in.  The problem with this attitude is that receiving feedback sits at the intersection of our drive to learn and our need to be accepted.  We can neither learn nor remain accepted if we refuse to let feedback in.  John Gottman found that spouses who influenced one another were more likely to stay married.  (See The Science of Trust.)


There are three key triggers that can be tripped when you’re receiving feedback: truth, relationship, and identity.  Once triggered, the only path to recovery is through acknowledging and processing the trigger to more rationally – and less emotionally – process the information.

Truth Triggers

What’s wrong with the feedback?  Maybe they said red instead of green.  Maybe they didn’t understand the broader context.  The truth is that we look for reasons to avoid accepting feedback.  Once we find that, we can “safely” reject the feedback.  In the language of Going to Extremes, the question is “Can I accept this?” versus “Must I accept this?”  The more that it goes against our beliefs, the more we’ll find reasons to not believe it.

Sometimes we bypass the rejection with humor.  In fact, Inside Jokes proposes that humor is our brain’s error checking process, detecting a fault in the logic and rewarding us for the discovery.  However, as many comedians have learned, the line between offensive and funny is razor thin.  Many comedians and entertainers have stumbled across the line and have found themselves having to apologize – or, tragically, have become “cancelled.”

While we believe that there is one objective truth that everyone believes, we often delude ourselves into a confidence in our beliefs that isn’t warranted.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more.)  True or not, if we don’t believe it’s true, we will struggle to accept it.

Relationship Triggers

Of course, the feedback is right, but I don’t want to hear it from you.  Like the indignant teenager who loathes to admit their parent may be right, we are triggered not by the content of the feedback but instead the fact of any kind of feedback at all coming from this person.  After all, I’m better, smarter, or wiser than they are, how could they possibly have anything to say that is important to me?

Identity Triggers

Sometimes, the feedback presses us in places that define us.  We have labeled ourselves as a good family man, and someone tells us something that is in conflict with that image.  In these cases, it’s not the feedback at stake, it’s our very being.  While having a stable core, or what Brene Brown would call “wholeheartedness,” can mitigate these responses, they can’t be eliminated.  (See Dialogue for stable core, and Daring Greatly for wholeheartedness.)

Often, we aren’t consciously aware of what our identities are or that we’ve got multiple fragmented and, in some ways, conflicting identities for ourselves.  It’s one of the things that we work on first in our Extinguish Burnout work.  We believe that until we can accept the whole of who we are, we’re less able to accept our foibles and flaws.

Sometimes, the feedback isn’t even directly about a part of our identity that we can name.  Instead, it is in opposition to the way that we’re motivated.  Perhaps we’re high on tranquility, and we’re given feedback about how we bring chaos with us.  (See Who Am I? and The Normal Personality for more on motivators.)


We hear words and assume that we understand the meaning behind them, but language is fraught with problems.  We don’t know whether “dust” refers to something covering our furniture or the process of removing it.  We can’t tell when something is “weathered” if it survived or was worn away.  There are countless words that have multiple definitions, including too many where the definitions include opposites.

There are also some things that are difficult, if not impossible, to convey with words.  Try describing how to ride a bike without someone actually having a chance to try it.  The words simply aren’t enough to create a clean understanding of the process.

The first step in receiving feedback should be to ensure we know what the other person intended.  One way to do that is to use Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference to see what we are adding that the other person might not have intended.  (See Choice Theory for more.)

Too Sensitive

One of the common challenges in couples counseling is that one partner believes that the other is too sensitive.  They believe that they should be allowed to keep making the kinds of comments, gestures, and decisions they’ve been making, and the other partner is overreacting.  In the opposite direction flows claims of being insensitive.  (See The Science of Trust.)  One could easily question whether one is too sensitive or insensitive – but the right answer is to find a place where our sensitivity is range with our partner’s.

In the context of feedback, we’re constantly trying to expand our capacity to be less sensitive to the feedback when received and more responsive to the appropriate feedback.

Clear Action

Sometimes, the feedback we’re receiving isn’t actionable.  It’s a criticism without a solution.  It’s a suggestion without clarity.  For the expert feedback receivers, this is a challenge and opportunity to find out if there is a way to arrive at actionable feedback.

Sometimes, the conversion is simple.  “What would you have me do?”  The person providing feedback often pauses before answering with specific, tangible, and direct suggestions.  Other times, they may answer with something akin to “I guess nothing.”  From here, it’s harder to know if the person recognized that there is nothing to be done or if they’re giving up because they expect that you’re preparing to reject their feedback – and them.


The famous study that’s chronicled and expanded upon in The Invisible Gorilla asks participants to count the number of players with white shorts who are playing around with a basketball on a short video.  Half the players wear white shorts, and the other half wear black.  The catch is that, in the middle of the video, a person dressed in a gorilla costume walks across the scene, beats their chest, and moves out of frame.  It’s the ultimate expression of a focus problem.  Few people notice the gorilla.  They’re so focused on white shorts that the black gorilla gets filtered out.

The benefit of good feedback is that it can help us see what we don’t even know is there.  When we focus on other things, there may be aspects of our personality or our performance that we just don’t see – things that another perspective and clear feedback may make visible to us.


It’s a switchtrack.  We start with one topic for feedback, and the recipient replies with a slightly different topic.  I see it all the time when facilitating business conversations.  (See Dialogue Mapping.)  In fact, it’s one of the first mental checks when I listen to people speak.  I try to respond with “I think we’re speaking about a few things here.  First, …”  I proceed to list them and get confirmation before discussing how we’ll get to all of them, but we have to process them one at a time.

The problem with switchtracking is that each person when they respond tries to move the conversation back to their topic by switching it back.  It’s like the problem when people are focused on feeling, power, or meaning to the exclusion of the others, and they seem to be talking past each other.  (See Dialogue and Crucial Conversations.)

Outside the Box

“New ideas often come from those without traditional credibility…”  In other words, the filters we use to remove irrelevant feedback may unintentionally cause us to miss some of the most important feedback.  If we say that you must have a PhD in statistics to tell me how I might have misused a principle in a subtle way, we’ll miss feedback that the amateur statistician offers.  We forget that at the beginning of every area of specialty is someone who has no formal credentials.

When asked about some of the outlandish – but useful – ideas that we have, I’ll often respond that I don’t even know where I put my box to be inside of it.  If you look at the full list of book reviews that I’ve done, you’ll see dozens of topic areas.

I finally went back and got both a bachelor’s degree (Computer Science) and a master’s degree (Management and Leadership), but that wasn’t until recently.  The ideas really come from 30 years of consulting experience with countless clients in dozens of industries.  I’ve been able to see simple solutions with broad applicability being used in one industry that I can bring to another.  (See Creative Confidence for a starter on how to think outside of the box.)

Loving the Flaws

One of the traps that we fall into is saying that we love someone in spite of their flaws.  But they really want to be loved because of their flaws.  This is a subtle shift, but it acknowledges that our personalities are made by our flaws.  A bunch of perfect humans walking around would be indistinguishable from one another.  We love people because of their flaws, quirks, and uniqueness, even if it’s hard to admit it.

It’s hard to say that you love some aspect of someone that seems unpleasant to you.  At the same time, there’s the real need to acknowledge that this is one of the things that makes them who they are – and why you like or love them overall.

Role Confusion and Clarity

Accidental adversaries are created by two things: role confusion and role clarity.  Accidental adversaries are people who we treat as an adversary not because of who they are but because of their role.  Sometimes with role confusion, one or the other of us steps outside of the role we should have and onto the toes of the other.  This confusion makes it hard to know who should do what and that creates unnecessary friction.

Sometimes, however, the friction is intentional.  There’s a clarity of roles, and one role’s job is the opposite of the other.  I explain that, traditionally, IT infrastructure teams want stability because they’re measured on uptime.  IT development teams are measured on their ability to implement new features.  Necessarily, developers want faster deployments, while infrastructure teams want to limit the rate of change to ensure stability.  Their roles are clear – and in some degree of conflict.

Addressing the System

We’ve all heard stories of people who continuously patched a problem rather than dealing with the core issues.  Whether it’s pouring oil into a car engine every day rather than having it repaired or bailing out a basement every time it rains rather than fixing the foundation, solving immediate problems without addressing the bigger system is all around us.  We’ll mediate the disagreements and fights between employees but never deal with the structure that creates conflict or help them to build a better relationship.

If we want to get good feedback, we’ve got to create the structure and systems that encourage it and provide a variety of perspectives, so we can correct for the distortion created by any one person’s perspective.

The Space Between

Ultimately, feedback lives in the space between us and the person providing the feedback.  It’s not always possible to determine how much of the feedback is about them, about us, or about the intersection.  Teasing out how much of the feedback is about us versus the other person often requires other feedback – with its own set of problems with where the source lies.  Systems that provide a large amount of feedback can be calibrated to help get to what we should change to be experienced better by others.

While we’re sorting out what of the feedback is about us, them, or our interactions, the best we can do is say Thanks for the Feedback.