Self-reflection – The foundational skill for receiving feedback

Have you ever walked out of a 1:1 feedback meeting with your supervisor feeling like you have been hit by a truck?

I am here to tell you, you’re not alone. I have spent years developing and nurturing a systematic approach to feedback in my own life, including feedback about my strengths and my challenges. Feedback is a growth tool, and yet – sometimes it just … hurts.

Remember what I said last week about feedback? It’s like a geode. Sometimes it resembles the breathtaking polished crystal inside … and sometimes it looks a lot more like the rough, pitted stone on the outside. It may feel like that, too. Ouch.

But if you let that reflexive response guide your next steps, you could make a move you’ll regret. Just as concerning, you are also likely to miss an opportunity to fully address the feedback, grow and move your skills (and future feedback) to a better place.

A system for self-reflection

I recommend not just developing a systematic approach to seeking feedback, but also following a clear framework for responding to and applying it. This starts with self-reflection. You need a way of reflecting constructively on the feelings feedback might bring up for you and dealing with them appropriately.

Here’s what I tell clients.

Step 1: Step back

If you’re receiving feedback that doesn’t feel good and you react to it immediately, you might say or do something you’ll later regret. Pause, take a breath and prepare to sit with this information. If you are able to, go ahead and remove yourself from the source of the feedback as soon as you reasonably can. There’s nothing wrong with saying something like “I want to take some space to think about this before I respond” … or “thank you for the feedback. I’d like to spend some time processing this so I can develop the right plan for next steps.”

Then, reach out to a trusted confidante with whom you can be candid, and give yourself some time and support for processing your feelings. It might be a spouse or other family member, it could be a co-worker (but not a subordinate!), or you may want to turn to a mentor, coach or other source of support. Wherever you go, use the time and space to move through feeling fearful, threatened, betrayed or wounded – a necessary step before you can move toward constructive action.

Step 2: Lean in to the feedback

Once you’ve gotten a little distance from the experience, it’s time to take stock of what you’ve heard. Grab a sheet of paper or open a document on your computer and prepare to make two lists. First, list all the positive feedback you received. Your negativity bias means you will have to force yourself to focus on the good. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to get lost in the negative.

Set this list aside for a day or so, then come back. Now it’s time for your other list — the growth areas, any critical comments and other feedback that strikes you as negative. This is not meant to serve as a laundry list of failures. Think of it as a to-grow list. This is fodder for progress. In the next two posts I have planned, I’ll tell you how to bring that progress to life.

Step 3: Map your way forward

So, now what?

Don’t stress about how your lists look. If you have more negative, more positive, or very long or short lists on both sides, let it go. It’s time to move forward. Looking first at your list of positive feedback, you will see some things to celebrate, but there are also some things to be cautious about. You’ll see what I call your superpowers – areas where you consistently shine. You might also see strengths that you over-use to your own detriment. Do you rely so much on your analytical skills that you neglect your people skills? In this way, you might start to see some links between your positive feedback and your growth areas.

Back to the to-grow list, now. Pick one or two areas to focus on. The decision might make itself. If, for example, your supervisor has insisted on progress in a given area or there is a pressing business need to build a certain skillset, your priority areas might be clear. Otherwise, you can make your own choices about where you can make the most progress quickly (this can feel great!) or what would help you most as you seek to advance other goals for yourself or your institution. Just don’t try to tackle more than one or two at a time, unless you have critical issues identified by your supervisor. If she or he has flagged more than one or two critical issues, a conversation about which are most important should come first.

Building a feedback habit

These processes will help form the foundation for learning, diversifying your skills and enhancing your performance in the workplace. Adopted and optimized over time, you will find yourself in a continuous growth loop, and continuously learning, improving, and getting more – and usually better – feedback.

Self-reflection is just the beginning, but it’s valuable on its own. Teaching yourself to resist your negativity bias will serve you in so many areas of your life, and it will help you see yourself more objectively – which is really what feedback is all about.

Last updated March 16, 2021

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