The intersection of technology and leadership

A guide for receiving feedback

I recently gave some advice on how to give feedback effectively and was asked to give some advice about receiving feedback. My guidelines for receiving feedback are pretty much based on understanding how to give effective feedback. Ola recently also shared his experiences with this.

Before I understanding how to receive feedback, it’s useful to recap some guidelines on how to give feedback:

  • Feedback should be specific. Talk about specific observations and impact of the behaviours exhibited during those observations.
  • Believe that someone was doing what they thought was correct at the time. (Akin to the Retrospective Prime Directive)
  • Feedback should be timely. Give it early and often as you see fit.
  • Feedback should be about both strengthening confidence and improving effectiveness. It shouldn’t be about making someone feel bad about themselves.
  • The focus of feedback should be about behaviours, not perceived values or attitudes.

When you receive feedback, be prepared not to receive feedback in an ideal manner. For many different reasons, most people find it difficult to give effective feedback, often requiring plenty of practice to get almost incrementally better at it.


Photo taken the Powerhouse Museum’s Flickr Stream under the Creative Commons licence

Listen candidly
When I receive feedback, I try to listen without reacting immediately to the feedback. Some common (ineffective) feedback people give is something like, “Your code is awful”. When put that way, who isn’t going to get defensive? Even something like “You’re really great” makes it hard to understand what behaviours you should continue repeating, and what behaviours you might consider changing. It’s particularly challenging listening to other feedback if you’ve already been put on the defensive, therefore…

Clarify detail and ask for specifics
When you feel offended or shocked with the feedback, ask for what observations people made to reach that conclusion. I like to ask for what observations they made and what impact it had, as well as how they felt about it. For some people, it’s useful to help them understand that you currently feel defensive. I might say something like, “I feel like I’ve just been judged and feeling defensive. I’d like to understand what behaviours you saw had a negative impact so that I can better understand your perspective.”

Share your context with them
People often jump to the wrong conclusion because they may not have the complete picture. It’s often useful to share other motivating forces about the same observed behaviours. For example, “I joined the conversation uninvited because I feared you would never ask me for my input and I felt I had important things to contribute.”

Acknowledge and thank them for their feedback
When people give feedback, they are giving up some of their time. Some people may have overcome certain fears about giving feedback. So when you’re receiving them, ensure that you acknowledge what they are saying and thank them for their feedback. Even if you disagree with their conclusion acknowledge their contribution if you also observed the same behaviour.

Ask for feedback early and often
Giving effective feedback takes time and isn’t often at the front of people’s minds. We know that it’s easier to respond to feedback early when you have an opportunity to change something. As the person receiving feedback, it often helps to invite people to give you feedback as this alleviates the fear most people have when giving feedback, “How are you going to react?” Giving people some notice about collecting feedback also helps.

Move people away from judgements to positive action items
For some people, it will be difficult to move them away from their “evaluation” and brining them back to observed behaviours. Also, some people don’t take remember specific behaviours or impact and like to talk about their “gut feeling”. While this isn’t particularly effective, as a person receiving feedback you can still benefit by asking them, “What should I do differently?” or “What could I do to make more of the situation, or make the situation better?”

What helps you?
I’m sure there are plenty of other tips on how to receive feedback. What do you tend to focus on when receiving feedback?


  1. matt mcknight

    These are pretty useful:

    They focus on a lot of the little things- the non-verbal aspects, etc. If you are getting feedback that is not structured, it is wise to restate the feedback you are getting in terms of behaviors that one can change.

    I think one key thing to remember is that feedback is positive and negative. In terms of giving feedback, the recommendation is to give much more positive feedback, perhaps in a 9:1 ratio with the negative.

  2. Patrick

    Great! Thanks for the links. I’ll definitely have a listen to these. Also, I tend not to think about feedback being positive or negative. I prefer the terms “Strengthen Confidence” and “Improving Effectiveness”. I find that negative feedback doesn’t necessarily help steer the conversation towards how behaviours can change… it more implies a value judgement that I’m uncomfortable with.

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