Listen, Lead, and Grow

Own Your Feedback (Part 2)

I spent most of my early years as a professional holding my breath through feedback conversations, waiting for them to end.

I viewed my manager and senior teammates as infallible and attributed any lack of clarity in their feedback to my own lack of understanding.

I worried that if I asked for clarification or more detail, I would offend my teammates by putting them on the spot and questioning them.

My fears and misguided assumptions kept me from actively participating in any feedback conversation. I received and didn’t question. I told myself I’d follow up later, but never did.

What I understand now is that the feedback I receive is for me, and I owe it to myself to clarify and question and to ask for more time to reflect on the feedback if I need it.

This is part 2 of a series about receiving feedback. If you haven’t read the first post about asking for feedback, you can read it here.

Listen and Lead

As in most conversations, receiving feedback involves moving between two actions: listening and leading.

Listening means being mentally and physically present for the feedback-giver. It means mirroring and clarifying what they say.

Leading means stating observations and asking questions in order to better understand what should change.

In feedback conversations, it’s best to err on the side of listening. Listen, listen some more, clarify, then lead.

Listen

Giving feedback takes courage, energy, and trust. It’s easier to transfer to a new project than to look a teammate in the eye and tell them they could be kinder, more supportive, more inclusive. It’s easier to clean up a slide than to tell your teammate they could’ve organized it better. Acknowledge that by giving you feedback, your teammate is doing the hard and kind thing.

While receiving feedback, listen. Pause or ignore your internal interpreter for a few moments and lend your senses to the feedback-giver. Mirror and paraphrase what the feedback-giver says so they know you heard them.

Listen in order to:

  1. Accept your teammate’s perspective.

  2. Understand your teammate’s perspective.

  3. Receive vulnerability.

Accept your teammate’s perspective.

If your teammate offers a perspective that does not agree with yours, it’s likely because of information asymmetry, not an absence of rationality. This information asymmetry created by your unique experiences creates the diversity of thought most of us seek at work. It should be celebrated.

Resist the temptation to disagree with your teammate as they’re sharing feedback, and acknowledge that they see what they see and feel what they feel.

Teammate: I think you’re implementing this incorrectly.

Receiving: You think I’m implementing this part of the project incorrectly. Could you elaborate?

vs

Teammate: I think you’re implementing this incorrectly.

Not-Receiving: Well, based on my research this is right. 

If your teammate had new information to add, in which scenario are they more likely to share it? 

Understand your teammate’s perspective.

You can paraphrase to understand and clarify your teammate’s perspective. Paraphrasing is stating what you’ve heard in your own words. It gives your teammate the chance to correct their original message and to correct your interpretation of their message.

Teammate: Your communication could improve. I never know what you're working on.

Paraphrased: You're having trouble understanding what I'm working on. Should I give you more updates?

Teammate: Actually, I do know what you’re working on. I’m just unable to understand whether the project will still make the deadline.

If the conversation is moving quickly and you need a moment to process and clarify what your teammate said, politely pause them.

“Excuse me, do you mind if I repeat what you just said? I want to make sure I understood you correctly.”

If you pause the speaker and ask for their permission to clarify what they said, they’ll see that you’re making an effort to understand them. And who doesn’t want to be understood?

Receive vulnerability.

Sometimes, a teammate is looking for support, not change or action.

If a teammate is sharing their feelings, listen until they stop speaking, and pause a little longer in case they have more to add. Then, mirror back what they said.

Mirroring is different from paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is sharing your interpretation of what the speaker said. Mirroring is your best attempt at repeating what the speaker said, word for word.

You paraphrase to clarify your understanding of the speaker’s statement.

You mirror to acknowledge that the speaker’s statement is about their experience, not yours.

I learned about mirroring from a couples workshop a couple of years ago. I’ve used it while speaking with my partner, my parents, and my coworkers. I’ve also had my own words mirrored back to me by my partner. It’s a powerful way to see and be seen.

Teammate: “I feel unsupported and alone.”

Not Mirroring: “Let me know how I can help.”

vs

Teammate: “I feel unsupported and alone.”

Mirroring: “You feel unsupported and alone. Is there more?”

Imagine that you are “Teammate,” in the above scenarios.

Why does the mirroring version feel better?

In a conversation, we don’t know what the other person’s thinking. After sharing something, you may wonder, “Did I use the right words? Did they understand me? Did I sound weak? Did my intention carry through?”

Mirroring alleviates these unknowns. When you repeat your teammate’s words back to them, they’ll hear what they said (and they can correct it if they want), they’ll see that you heard what they said, and their experience will be validated. It will also keep the focus of the conversation on them and their experience.

After mirroring, ask your teammate if they have more to add. Continue to mirror and prompt until they have nothing more to say.

Prompt them with: 

“Is there more?”, “Tell me more,” “Is there anything else?”

Once your teammate is finished sharing, you can redirect it back to yourself and offer support:

Let me know how I can help.”

Teammate: I feel unsupported and alone.

Mirroring: You feel unsupported and alone. Is there more?

Teammate: I don’t know how to ask for help.

Mirroring: You don’t know how to ask for help. Is there more?

Teammate: No, that’s all.

Mirroring: Thank you for sharing. Let me know how I can help.

When in doubt, listen. Pause the speaker to clarify and understand. When you’re ready to learn more and dive into details, transition to leading.

Share

Lead

Leading means asking questions.

Lead in order to:

  1. Reconcile your teammate’s perspective with yours.

  2. Translate your teammate’s observations into actions.

  3. Guide the conversation towards areas you’d like more feedback on.

Reconcile your teammate’s perspective with yours.

This step may involve some healthy conflict. Your view may not agree with your teammate’s, but this is where both of you can learn something. 

Teammate: I could use more of your help in running our weekly meetings. You always seem disengaged.

Leading: You’ve observed that I seem disengaged during our weekly meetings. Could you elaborate? 

Teammate: Well, you’re always looking at your laptop during our meetings.

Leading: Ah, so you think I’m disengaged because I’m looking at my laptop. I do pay attention. I just can’t see the screen clearly, so I look at the presentation on my laptop as I follow along. 

Teammate: Oh, okay.

Translate your teammate’s observations into action items.

A shared understanding may not be enough. If you continue to stare at your laptop during meetings, your teammate could still feel like you’re disengaged. Lead the conversation towards actions. Use your teammate’s help in figuring out how to move forward.

Leading: Is there anything else I could do to help you run the weekly meetings?

Teammate: Yes, it would be great if you could contribute to our team discussions at the end.

Leading: Okay, sure, I will try. And is it okay if I still follow along on my laptop?

Teammate: Yes, you can, though I’d prefer it if you sat closer to the screen. When you look at your laptop, others are more likely to look at theirs and not pay attention.

Leading: Okay, if I’m able to snag a spot near the front, I won’t follow along on my laptop, otherwise I will.

Guide the conversation towards areas you’d like feedback on.

Asking for feedback is the best way to start a feedback conversation. Studies have shown that asking gives you and the feedback-giver more psychological safety. There are fewer unknowns: you are expecting to receive feedback, and the feedback-giver knows that you’re expecting it. Asking for feedback also helps the feedback-giver understand what you’d like to focus on.

Leading: Do I seem disengaged in any other situation? Should I be attending more team lunches?

Teammate: The team understands that you have lunch meetings, but it would be nice to have you join us occasionally. 

Leading: Okay, I will try to join more often.

Share

Take Your Time

You may receive feedback when you’re not expecting it.

Receiving feedback can trigger a stress response, consume mental bandwidth, and leave you exhausted. It may be hard to listen and lead.

If you’re about to receive feedback and you’re not ready for it, you have options:

You can ask to postpone the meeting.

“I’m sorry, can we move the meeting to later today? I have a lot on my mind, and don’t think I can give this conversation its due attention.”

You can take notes during the meeting and follow up with questions later.

“I took notes on what we discussed. I want to think over these notes and schedule a follow-up meeting to go over some questions I have.”

You can choose the time and place of the follow-up meeting. Choosing when to meet again will have many of the benefits of asking for feedback: you and your teammate will go into the meeting knowing what to expect.

You can choose a time that works with your schedule and mental state; you can choose to meet on a day where you have fewer meetings or choose to meet earlier in the day when you’re more awake.

If your teammate is flexible on where to meet, you can choose to walk and talk or meet at a coffee shop. 

You can rest and prepare yourself to engage. Just make sure you schedule the meeting!

Positive Feedback

Most of the examples in this post are about receiving constructive feedback, but listening and leading also apply to receiving positive feedback. 

It’s tempting to end a feedback conversation after your teammate tells you, “you’re great,” but I encourage you to lead and dig for specifics:

“Wonderful to hear that you think I’m great! What have I done that you’ve liked? What should I do more of?”

It’s also a good opportunity to ask for a new challenge: 

“Glad you think I’m great! Do you think I’m close to performing at the next level? I’d love to understand what I’m missing and what I should do more of.”

Conclusion

You are more than a passive receiver of feedback, you are a stakeholder in your growth. Your teammate isn’t sitting between you and career success, they’re sitting next to you and working with you to make you a better teammate and person.

When in doubt, listen. Accept your teammate’s perspective and receive their vulnerability. Clarify what they said so you both can leave with a shared understanding.

Lead to augment your data with theirs. Clarify, question and drive the conversation towards actions.

Receiving feedback is easier when the feedback-giver knows when and how to deliver feedback. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. In the next post, I’ll share a few pointers on how to receive feedback when you’re not getting it at all or when the feedback-giver may be unprepared.

Part 3 is about using preparation to get the feedback you need.

If you found this post useful, please share it with family, friends, or coworkers.

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Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Receive Better Feedback by Asking - describes why and how to ask for feedback

Part 3: Preparation Makes Perfect - describes how to prepare for a feedback conversation to get the most out of it.

Part 4: You Are Not a High-Performer - describes how feedback can be challenging to receive because it challenges our labels.


If you have a moment, I’d appreciate some feedback on this post so I can tune my content and improve my writing. Answer any questions you’re comfortable with or have time for:

  1. After reading this, do you feel more confident about leading a feedback conversation?

  2. After reading this, do you understand the value of listening? Of mirroring?

  3. After reading this, do you feel more motivated to ask for feedback?

  4. Do you feel like these pointers are only applicable to work? Would you feel comfortable extending them to your personal life?


Thank you Sasha Levage, Drew Stegmaier, Louis Pereira, Alexandra Macqueen, and Alberto Sadde for helping me review this post!