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Coach's Corner--May 19, 2008

There's a method to getting useful, constructive feedback

The Client
Name: JP
Age: 55
Title: Database manager
Time with company: 4 years 
Industry: Non-profit, services
Issue: Obtaining constructive feedback
Q. Any ideas on how to solicit constructive feedback from co-workers? I usually get the extremes: thoughtless compliments or aggressive criticism. When I ask for feedback, I’m seeking neither affirmations nor a fight, just suggestions for improvement or additional perspectives that I might not have considered.

A. Candid feedback helps you grow, but it can be hard to obtain. The way you make your request and the attitude you convey can make it easier for people to give you what you are looking for.

The inner game
If you’re anxious or defensive, you will get less feedback. Your inner work focuses on reducing any resistance you may feel to what you hear, and creating openness in its place.

To start, look inward, exploring your feelings about the feedback you may receive. In particular, consider what drives any negative feelings. Perhaps you associate feedback with criticism; it may have been a harsh process or may have put you on the defensive. If so, focus on creating new expectations that are focused on your growth. And notice how you experience any tension, for example, if you unconsciously clench your fists or hunch your shoulders. Releasing these physical signs can also help let go of emotional tension.

Also, cultivate a sense of openness and gratitude, gaining a deep sense that honest feedback is a gift to you. From this perspective, you’ll be more receptive to suggestions for improvement.

The outer game
All feedback is not equal, and not all people are skilled at providing feedback. To get the most useful comments, ask the right people, be specific about what you want, and handle the conversation well. Seek feedback from people who are in a position to know what you do, are observant, and don’t have a bias against you. This doesn’t mean asking only friends for feedback. In fact, getting someone a bit farther away can create a safer zone for both of you.

Once someone agrees to provide feedback, be clear on what you’re looking for. For example, ask for feedback on how well you make decisions, rather than on how effective you are in general. The more specific request provides a focus. Then, allow time for your colleague to observe you and think about the appropriate feedback. Extreme responses, especially general praise, are often the result of lack of “think time.”

When feedback is being provided, be open to the comments you receive. Pay attention to how you’re feeling and let go of any anxiety that creeps in. You’ll stop feedback dead in its tracks if you make excuses for your performance. However, it’s helpful to ask clarifying questions, and to reflect back what you heard to ensure understanding.

Above all, thank your co-worker for the feedback. The more comfortable you can make the experience, especially if you received useful criticism and learning opportunities, the more likely you’ll be to receive useful feedback again. 

The last word
We all can improve at whatever we do, and learning to ask for and receive feedback graciously is a great asset in our pursuit of growth.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted May 19, 2008
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