How to not suck at receiving feedback

Self-worth in a dishwasherI usually suck at receiving feedback. Even a constructive suggestion from my wife about loading the dishwasher feels like a personal attack, as if my very self-worth is tied to whether the dishes should face in or out.

Yet in writing Working Out Loud, dozens of people are giving me feedback and I like it. Somehow I’ve learned to be grateful for the criticisms of my wife, my friends, and people I’ve only met via this blog. As a result, the book is already much, much better.

Three things helped me, and whether your goal is cleaner dishes or a better life, I hope they can help you too.

Frame the goal as a learning goal

Several years ago, Keith Ferrazzi first introduced me to the idea of framing things as learning goals. If I wanted to be a better public speaker, for example, he taught me not to ask “How was I?”after a talk but “What’s one thing I could do better?” That empowered the other person to give me constructive help instead of just simple encouragement.

Seth Godin wrote that “Applause is great. We all need more of it. But if you want to improve, you should actively seek feedback.” Besides, I’d much rather learn about weaknesses in the book now than read about them in Amazon reviews after I’ve published it.

Here’s some feedback that made me wince at first but made the book better. Sometimes, the reviewer is describing a section or my editorial style:

“you started to lose me”

“It felt that there were a lot of commas!”

“the exercise becomes a bit cheesy to me”

“intro wordy and a bit ‘la di da’”

Then there were more general comments:

“The one aspect I didn’t really enjoy”

“While I was reading it, I didn’t get much sense of the overall reason for the content”

“Well, you asked me to be blunt…”

But the most negative comments were on the graphics I used. In the 82 pages draft, there were only two graphics and they were both universally hated.

“Surely, it’s just a placeholder”

“The pentagon of 5 elements…needs improvement because it is not interesting-looking or memorable”

Appreciate it as a gift

All of these particular comments were useful. The visuals did stink. I did use too many commas. The confusing parts were confusing.

But Ferrazzi also taught me that I didn’t have to take on every bit of feedback. After all, of the 25 pages of comments I received, there were sometimes conflicting suggestions or points I simply didn’t agree with.

Feedback is a gift. You accept it graciously and if it isn’t right for you after due consideration, you put it aside. Viewing it this way also helped me to take the criticism and myself less seriously. In The Art of Possibility, the conductor Ben Zander reinforced this when he described reacting to mistakes not with irritation but with “How fascinating!”

Choosing amateurish graphics doesn’t make me a bad author or even a bad selector of graphics. It just highlights an opportunity to improve in yet another area. “How fascinating!”

Accentuate the positive

It seems we’re all wired to look out for threats and overlook the good things. In a page full of positive comments, I’d immediately focus on the one criticism.

Being mindful of that tendency, I would purposefully read the positive feedback again and again. Besides bolstering my confidence, it helped me put the negative comments in perspective.

“I love this book.”

“I love the way you write.”

“LOVE LOVE LOVE a home run”

“The stories of people thru out, embedded in the chapters, are great.”

“Like your blogs, this draft is captivating and I didn’t want to put it aside.”

“Eff YEAH!  So, so, SO exciting seeing it all come together REALLY REALLY REALLY awesome”

“I also selfishly wonder if there is a version for 11 – 13 years old which I can use with my daughter. I am serious!”

The results

A friend of mine is an author and when he heard how much feedback I was getting he mused to himself “What would you do with all of that?”

I thought “What would I have done without all of it?!” My early drafts were pathetic, like high school book reports full of quotes to show the teacher how much research I’ve done. Without the generosity of the reviewers, I may never have gotten beyond that stage.

In addition to making the book better, asking for and getting feedback has done something else, something surprising and even more important. It’s transformed the solitary experience of writing into a global communion, full of good feelings and intellectual exchanges. The book doesn’t feel like mine alone any more but like the collaboration of a small tribe. Now I’m about to send out another draft to another round of reviewers and I’m asking for other help: marketing, graphics, self-publishing, copyediting. I’m not good at any of these things but with the help and generosity of others, I can get better.

When it comes to getting feedback about something you care about, Seth Godin summed it up nicely just two days ago:

“Good advice is priceless. Not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. Not imaginary, but practical. Not based on fear, but on possibility. Not designed to make you feel better, designed to make you better.

Seek it out and embrace the true friends that care enough to risk sharing it.”

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Self awareness and improvement, Working out loud and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to How to not suck at receiving feedback

  1. Love this personal testament to the power of feedback. It CAN be hard to take and it does not always, as you say, have to be followed. But either way you learn. And for me the greatest impact of giving and taking feedback is that it turbo charges the relationship – our risk taking and vulnerability (on both sides as sometimes giving feedback is scary) increases our connection.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hi, Moyra. Yes, being vulnerable and empowering others to help you really is a good way to deepens relationships. And it feels much better and more authentic than pretending everything is great and I’ve got it all under control.

  2. Guy Lipman says:

    “How to not suck at receiving feedback” popped up on my RSS feed, and even before I saw who it was by, I knew I needed to read it. I’m bad at receiving feedback, though I managed to convince myself that it is better to be thought bad at something, than thought bad at the thing *and* bad at being told! Though I could still get better at taking the more balanced perspective you talk about.

    Another interesting fact on feedback is that people rarely give it uninvited, but love being asked for it – and once they give it, they are even more motivated towards your success.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Guy. I’ve been thinking of you all week as I read and re-read your comments while rewriting the book. Your insights really helped me and will make the book better. Thank you!

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  5. Irene Johansen says:

    Hi John,

    I’m so grateful for this! I’m not alone! Feedback – tricky – prickly – uncomfortable – essential – painful – insightful – and the source of joy when you realize that your efforts are a journey, not a stop or a destination, and so the guide to perfection is the companion, not the end-game; the light at the end of the tunnel, not the burden – and there are all kinds of people on the road with you who have your back!

  6. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    Hi John
    It’s so great to see such a positive perspective on “feedback” and how “priceless” it can be. I particularly like the notion of the collaborative journey your book has taken you on – “full of good feeling and intellectual exchanges” – rather than the solitary experience one so often hears about from writers. And still more, that you are able to learn from positive and negative feedback in equal measure. That is a gift.

    What I find equally interesting is the “quantity” of feedback you have sought so that you almost need feedback on the feedback! And I will confess that when I got to the view of your author friend “what would you do with all of that” I had already arrived at the same question☺
    I would be really interested to know how that quantity of feedback did not distract you from your own purpose and train of thought – or lure you off in different directions ?- and how you prevented your writing from just becoming the “sum of the feedback “– rather than your original path and intended results?

    When your book is published I have no doubt that you will welcome the praise and acknowledge the criticism with the same fascination and desire to learn that you have shown in the making of it.
    By then the book itself will be priceless.

    I wish you all success in completing it.

    • John Stepper says:

      If I can rephrase your question: “How do I prevent my book being written by consensus, like the camel being a horse designed by a committee?”

      I think the regular writing I’ve done over the past 5-6 years (3 publicly) have grounded me. It’s taken a long time but I feel I found my voice and have refined my sense of what I like and don’t like. That helps me to accept all gifts of feedback while incorporating some and discarding others. That process was made much easier because much of the feedback on the first draft was quite consistent. It seems like everyone mostly liked or disliked the same things.

      Would you like to read a draft or wait for an inscribed copy?

      • Marie-Louise Collard says:

        Thanks John
        I like your rephrase 🙂 A lot more elegant! I suppose the problems start when the feedback is not consistent and there is also a temptation to get distracted with tangents that some of the feedback may encourage. Clearly this has not happened.

        Your final question has thrown me! The one could have feedback put all over it 🙂 – the other a gloriously finished (inscribed) completed item! There is only one answer:
        Could I possibly have both?

        Thank you!

      • John Stepper says:

        I was hoping you’d say that. 🙂 I will send you the next draft. Thank you!

  7. John,

    Glad to hear the book is coming along. I thought of you this morning when I read this article:

    “I Planted My Self-Published Book on Barnes & Noble’s Shelves… And People Bought It”

    I can totally see you doing that once its ready for prime time. =)

    All the best,

    ~ Colleen

    • John Stepper says:

      Colleen!!! One of my favorite collaboration experts! Thank you so much for this link and for thinking I might do this. (I hadn’t thought of it but….maybe !)

      I miss your creativity and intelligence and, most of all, your niceness. I hope you’re well. Looking back, I see how awesome your work truly was and I hope you’re making your own dent in the universe now. If not, let me help you!

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  9. Sharon Jurkovich says:

    Love the ‘How Fascinating’ tip. And, I’m cracking up at the dishwasher example. I get ‘constructive feedback’ On dishwasher loading.

    Oh, and Nicola has a memoir that’s been published. Maybe she can help you!

    See you later!

    Sent from my iPhone


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