Feedback is part of the communication process. Whenever you present, you will receive feedback from your audience. It may come as a formal evaluation following your presentation or in casual conversation with audience members after your message. It might be a written rubric or a note of thanks. It could be a glowing published report or a hurtful jab on social media. It might come in the form of thunderous applause or bored looks from members of the audience. However and whenever feedback comes, speakers need to be open to receiving it and using it to grow.
“What if we could see receiving feedback as a skill, a skill that we can all get better at?” This was a question asked by Sheila Heen, New York Times bestselling author and Harvard Law School faculty in her 2015 presentation, “Thanks for the Feedback.” When I listened to her presentation, it enabled me to change my connotation of feedback from negative to positive. Here’s just a little of what I learned.
Why It’s So Tough
One of the toughest parts of my job as a professor of communication is providing balanced feedback to my students. Presentations and speeches are forms of communication. And communication is personal. Therefore, I work hard to make sure my students know that the feedback I give is about their communication, not about their character.
Heen hits on why feedback can be so difficult for humans. She says, “Feedback sits at the junction of two core human needs. On the one hand, we do want to learn and grow . . . this drive and thirst for learning and mastery and getting better means feedback should be joyful. Here’s the problem, this bumps into a second human need. The need to feel accepted and respected and loved the way we are now.” Feedback tells us that we need to fix or upgrade something about ourselves. We all want to get better, but it’s difficult to have other people point out how we might improve.
How to Make the Most of It
So we know that feedback is both necessary and uncomfortable. When, as a speaker, you inevitably come up against feedback in the future, try using the following tips to help you make the most of it.
- First, reframe the way you think about feedback. Instead of seeing it as negative, remember that feedback is ultimately information that helps you get better. Accept it as a gift, an opportunity.
- Listen to understand, not to defend. Before putting up barriers to protect yourself, really seek to fully understand the feedback given to you.
- Take time to process what you’ve been told. Instead of making a snap decision on whether the feedback is right or wrong, or useful or useless, sit with it for a little while. Allow yourself time to really think about it.
- Look for the nugget of truth that will help you get better. Even if you eventually come to the conclusion that the feedback was false or hurtful or unhelpful, see if you can find one thing in it that can help make you better. What is your take-away?
- Keep what is helpful, throw out what isn’t. For many people, this is the hardest part. Once you’ve identified the part of the feedback that can make you better, you have to let go of the rest. Once you’ve done that, you can stop the unproductive and damaging spiral of continuing to process information that isn’t helpful.
- Finally, keep growing. In their 2007 research, John Hattie and Helen Timperley of the University of Auckland say we should use the following three questions to guide us: Where am I going? How am I going? and Where to next? The first question deals with goals, the second deals with process, and the third deals with progress. We can’t forget that feedback is part of the process by which we progress.
Feedback doesn’t have to be a scary or destructive. Even if we receive feedback that is delivered poorly or is hurtful rather than helpful, we can get better at receiving it. The truth is, when we get better at receiving feedback, we become better communicators.
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