The tension in my shoulders. The quickening of my pulse. The clenching of my jaw. The tightness in my chest. It wasn’t a physical threat triggering my fight or flight response—it was an annual performance review.
And I relived this experience year after year, in informal and formal settings. The thought of someone delivering an assessment of my work—of me—automatically set off a physical and emotional response that felt beyond my control. My reaction may sound extreme, but I’m willing to bet a lot of people can relate. We get feedback throughout our lives—from our parents, our teachers, our bosses, and others. Yet, somehow, many of us aren’t very good at receiving it.
It doesn’t help that many people aren’t very good at giving it either. Sometimes, it’s due to a lack of clarity. Feedback is difficult to interpret without appropriate context, and that can lead to our misinterpretation of the person’s comments or intent. Other times, it has to do with a lack of trust. If we distrust the person offering us feedback, we’re more likely to dismiss—or even resent—it.
Often, however, our biggest barriers to accepting feedback are less external (i.e., who is giving it and how) and more internal (i.e., the way we receive and interpret it).
Barriers to hearing feedback
So many things get in the way of our truly hearing feedback from others. Some of the most common internal factors that create a barrier to our receiving feedback are:
We may feel threatened or attacked when we’re receiving feedback, which can cause us to respond defensively. Our defensiveness clouds our objectivity and distorts our perception of the feedback we’re receiving. Similarly, we may feel judgment or rejection. All these emotions can cause us to avoid seeking feedback or dismiss it when it’s given.
Threat to our identity.
We’re human, and that means we have a natural resistance to criticism. We’ve each crafted a story about ourselves and how we want others to perceive us, and most of us work hard to maintain that visage. When we receive feedback that challenges our beliefs, critiques our values, or evaluates our abilities, it can feel like a threat to our sense of self.
Think about the last time you asked someone for feedback. Did you really want an honest critique, or were you looking for a glowing review of your work? The last time I requested someone’s feedback, it was because I wanted positive reinforcement and I was certain they would give it to me. But if we only seek feedback that confirms our existing beliefs and ignore (or hide from) feedback that contradicts them, we risk limiting our learning and growth.
Resistance to change.
Constructive feedback often asks us to change our behavior, and we all know that change can be scary. Plus, the very act of receiving feedback requires us to relinquish control. If we resist change or balk at the idea of giving up control, we may reject feedback that suggests we need to modify our behavior or beliefs.
Even the humblest among us have an ego. It’s part of what makes us human. As Susanne R. Cook-Greuter, a scholar recognized for her work in ego development theory and the function of language in meaning-making, has explained, “Ego underlies the universal drive to explain everything and make us feel safe, important, and to belong.” Sometimes, our egocentrism prevents us from seeing things from someone else’s point of view. If their feedback makes us feel inadequate or inferior, we may disregard their perspective or dismiss it as unimportant.
One thing that has helped me in my quest to overcome some of these barriers to hearing feedback is to reframe my instinctual reactions and instead listen to learn. When we make an effort to set aside our defensiveness, quiet the stories we tell ourselves, discard our desire for agreement, loosen our resistance to change, and park our egos, then we can begin to treat feedback as a gift.
Feedback is a gift
I know what you’re thinking: if feedback is a gift, why do I feel so lousy when I get it? And it’s true that if we lean too far into asking people to only look at feedback as a gift, we risk stripping them of their agency and human-ness.
Feedback can bring up very difficult and very real emotions. Some of them are positive, and some of them are uncomfortable. But no matter how feedback makes us feel, we have a choice in how we receive, process, and respond to it—and therein lies the gift.
If we can learn to accept and appreciate feedback, we have the opportunity to:
Increase our self-awareness.
Feedback can help us to gain a better understanding of how others perceive us. It offers new perspectives and opportunities for learning and growth, helping us become more self-aware and make positive changes.
Enhance our performance and inspire our growth.
Feedback can provide valuable information on what we’re doing well and where we need to improve, personally and professionally. Identifying these opportunities can help us build a roadmap for our growth and development.
Improve our relationships and communication.
When we are open to feedback, we demonstrate a willingness to listen. We acknowledge that our behaviors affect those around us. Asking for and acting on feedback shows others that we value their opinions and are committed to improving, which can improve our relationships.
Approaching feedback with an open mind and a desire to listen to learn can help us overcome the obstacles that may hinder our growth and our potential.