Healthy Leaders


How to Receive Feedback Graciously

Adrian PeiAdrian Pei

This is the seventh part in a series on giving and receiving feedback.

Part 1 – How to Make Feedback Fun (Really!)
Part 2 – How to Decide If and When to Give Feedback
Part 3 – Feedback: The First and Most Important Thing to Say
Part 4 – The Difference Between Flattery and Appreciation
Part 5 – How to Deliver Feedback Effectively
Part 6 – Putting Negative Feedback into Perspective
Part 8 – Disagreement ≠ Defensiveness
Part 9 – Feedback and Ethnicity

I’ll never forget the most ridiculous customer service experience in my life. I had arrived home to celebrate my wife’s birthday, only to discover that the bakery had given me the wrong kind of cake. I called the store, and they told me the manager would call me back … but I heard nothing for two days. When I finally called again and got the manager on the line, she was rude and in complete denial.

Me: “I asked for the red cake, but I got a yellow cake.”

Manager: “Well, that’s not possible, because our staff know the difference between a red and yellow cake.”

Me: “I don’t know what to tell you. They gave me a yellow cake.”

Manager: “Um, I don’t know what to tell you either. Nobody in our store would have done that.”

Me: “Are you saying it’s not possible that your staff made a mistake?”

Manager: “No, I’m not saying that.”

Me: “Are you saying I’m making this up or that I made a mistake?”

Manager: “No.”

In retrospect, this conversation is even a little comical. I mean, if her staff can’t make mistakes and neither did I, what exactly did she think happened?  The cake changed colors while I was driving home?  I said the word “red” but her staff worker heard the word “yellow”?

But on a more serious note, I was getting pretty frustrated at this manager’s complete unwillingness to take any responsibility. No hint of an apology or anything. After a couple more exchanges, I eventually asked her, “Do you want to make money? Why would I as a paying customer want to come back, when my order was messed up and there’s no acknowledgment of a mistake? Why wouldn’t I tell my friends about this experience and this phone call, and tell them not to come to your store?”

She couldn’t hear it. She hung up the phone.

Clearly this was NOT a good way to receive feedback. The thing is, there were so many other ways this manager could have handled that phone call. 

She could have said, “Mistakes do happen” or “We don’t want any of our customers to leave unsatisfied” without having to admit that she or her staff were necessarily the ones in the wrong.

She could have said, “I’m sorry to hear that … Is there anything I can do to make this right?”  She wouldn’t necessarily have to give me a refund (and I wasn’t even asking for one)!

Instead, she violated almost every single value we’ve been discussing in this feedback series. There was no acknowledgment of my reality or the impact on me, no desire to respect me as a customer, and so on. Needless to say, I’ve never been back to that bakery since and I’ve told many of my family and friends not to go there. Learning to receive feedback well isn’t just a matter of improving one’s “EQ” skills … it actually impacts how successful and fruitful we are in our work and relationships!

In contrast, I’ll never forget when a hotel manager responded as well as possible to a problem I had. She came to visit my room in person, asked to hear what happened, took responsibility, offered to make things right, and then followed through. She even sent a plate of fruit to my room as a gesture. I’ll always remember that, even more than the hotel room or amenities themselves.

Think about that for a second!  I might not have even remembered this hotel much beyond a general negative impression. But simply because she knew how to receive feedback, this manager transformed a bad experience into a positive association that stands out in my memory!  And you better believe I’ll be giving that hotel repeat business for years to come. Good and bad leadership have tangible, measurable, and lasting consequences.

So as we think about how to receive feedback well, here are three steps to consider:

Step One: Thank the other person for the feedback.

Say, “Thank you for caring enough to talk to me about this. I know it might have been easier to avoid me or just not say anything at all.”

Step Two: Clarify the feedback.

Paraphrase what you think they’re saying. Say, “What I’m hearing you say is…” “Would you say that captures it well, or would you want to clarify anything?”

Be a Detective, not a Debater: During this step, I’ve learned that it’s important for us to seek to understand why we’re getting this feedback, much like a detective would. It’s more effective than getting into a logical debate about details. People nearly always have a reason for what they’re saying, even if it doesn’t appear rational.

Feedback: “You’re late again. This is getting frustrating.”

Bad Response: “I’m only ten minutes late!  And the last two times, it was only five minutes.”

Better Response: “I’m sorry to keep you waiting, especially since this isn’t the first time you asked me to come earlier. Do you feel that I’m not respecting your time, or is it something else?  I want to understand and hear where you’re coming from.”

The primary goal during this step is to make sure the other person feels heard. Make sure that happens before you push back, justify, or give counterexamples. The other person will simply not hear you, if you try doing that.

It’s hard to listen well when someone is listing grievances and getting emotional … but hang in there, because it’s well worth it!

And keep in mind that “hearing another person” does not necessarily mean agreeing with them, or losing your own opinions or voice in the conversation.  You are simply validating that they have had an experience that is real to them. We’ll talk more about this in our next post.

Step Three: Ask permission to share.

Say, “Thanks again for your feedback, I’ll take a look at that in the weeks to come. May I also share some of my thoughts that may provide some context?”

Some people might think receiving feedback well is just about “taking it in the gut” and not saying a word. While there certainly are times when it’s better to just listen and not respond, I actually lean away from this approach. I think it’s healthy to be able to hear other peoples’ thoughts and views, and still be able to speak our own minds respectfully. The goal is that both people are honored, and neither is invalidated. But that means we don’t minimize ourselves or our own voices either!

In the next post, we’ll discuss more on this topic of how we can speak up for ourselves, while remaining gracious in the feedback process.

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Adrian Pei