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Beat Your Fear of Feedback by Learning How to ‘Kick Some Ask’

We’re excited to share that Feedback (and Other Dirty Words) makes its Blinkist début. Laura Dowling Grealish shares key tips she and co-author, M. Tamra Chandler, recommend to make sure you have a healthy relationship to feedback.
by Laura Dowling Grealish | Jul 29 2019

Does the thought of asking for feedback make you afraid? Me, too. Fear has long limited the important role feedback should be playing in our working lives—all the result of feedback gone wrong. Bad feedback experiences paralyze good, helpful communication flows, demoralize well-intentioned people and entire organizations miss out on the boost that authentic, true, and helpful feedback can offer. How do we fix it? We face into it. Rather than run from it, we become feedback seekers. But what are the benefits of actively seeking feedback?

Asking Neutralizes Your Fear of Feedback

By actively seeking feedback from your boss or colleagues, you generate a psychologically-safe space for connection. People are more receptive to feedback when they have asked for it as the act of asking switches our brains into a more reward-oriented state which makes us more open to learning from the experience.

When feedback sessions come at us unannounced, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear and the brain signals the body to react to a feedback exchange much like a physical threat. The thoughtful, smart, empathetic part of the brain shuts down, the heart rate increases, and the body is primed to physically resist or flee the situation.

Same goes for the person you’re asking for feedback. When you ask permission in advance for someone to give you specific feedback, the fight or flight response is less active, allowing both you and them the psychological safety to speak more authentically and freely. You have granted them permission, so the response is less likely to be guarded or disingenuous. Fear signals in the brain are minimized and both parties in the conversation are more likely to feel trust, collaboration, hope, and possibility. You might actually be able to process and do something with this kind of feedback.

You Display a Growth Mindset

Whether you’re a leader or an individual, we can all benefit from being open to the perspectives and insights of others. No matter how smart you think you are, optimizing your game at work means it’s important to seek out and consider the perspective, ideas, skills, and opinions of others. Demonstrating a growth mindset—i.e. Being a learn-it-all, not a know-it-all—means we believe we can learn something from just about anyone. Not one of us is as smart as all of us.

You Get Feedback You Can Actually Use

When you seek out feedback, you control and steer the focus of the feedback session. Feedback can be anywhere from abstract to concrete, and research has shown that the kind of feedback people prefer is very individual. For example, if you want to improve your presentation skills, a high-level, open-to-interpretation question would be “What are the objectives I should have covered during my presentation?” A clearer, more specific question could be, “What did you notice about my eye contact during my presentation today?” The first deals more with the high-level why, the second with the specific how or what. Get really clear on the one thing you are asking for, then narrow it even more. When you tailor your feedback request to your preferred level feedback, you own what comes your way and this is where real learning begins.

Tips for Successful Feedback Seeking

Tip #1: Ask in Advance

Asking in advance is the most effective way to get what you seek. It clarifies for the feedback-giver the information you’re seeking, and it allows them time to consider and prepare their answer. Giving them advance notice avoids putting them on the spot, and it usually improves the quality of the feedback they provide. Connect with your feedback-extender in a time and place that gives them the context up-front about what you want information on.

Tip #2: Focus Your Question

Research indicates that we are likely to stimulate a fear response in a potential feedback-extender when we hit them with a broad question like, “How am I doing?” The best means for lowering their stress and getting an authentic and helpful response is to request feedback that’s specific and focused.

Tip #3: Increase Your Sources

The more sources of feedback you enlist, the more you’ll increase the learnings and insights you can gather. Additionally, getting feedback from a cross-section of people makes it more likely that you’ll get a truer picture of your performance than if you’re relying only on the observations of one co-worker or only your boss. If you’re working on a problem, trying to improve your game, tackling that next level on the competency ladder, or striving to be a better leader, then gathering perspectives from numerous angles will give you broader awareness about other perspectives and increase the fairness and accuracy of the feedback that you take in.

Tip #4: Ask for Notice, Not Judgement

Noticing is observing without judgment. When we notice ourselves, other people, or behaviors without judgment, we observe things as they are, without attaching emotion, ego, or story. When you ask for what someone notices, you relieve the feedback-extender of the psychological distress of rating you (good or bad) or ranking you or judging you. Let them know the nature of the feedback you’re looking for (ask in advance and focus your ask) and when you’ll be looping back to see what they observed or experienced. Ask them to provide a mirror-like descriptive view of what they noticed, and how they experienced it, not whether it was good or bad.

Tip #5: Ask For the Good Stuff

Don’t shy away from the good stuff. This feedback game can be rough, so shore up your strengths, hone the crafts you love and excel at, and find your superpowers. Playing to your strengths is the secret to a happy and meaningful life, so you better know what your superpowers are and how they bring value to others. And the best way to know is simply to kick some ask. It’s okay to ask a boss or co-worker who compliments you to give more detail. “You said I did a good job in there today. What exactly was the good bit?” Then double down on that superpower next time! Make sure your seeking strategy helps you recognize the things you love, then let that insight help you fall in love with your work everyday. There is no better way to optimize yourself and your contribution to your organization.

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