Pause. Breathe. Listen. -- Learning to Receive Feedback Well


Have you ever been on the receiving end of a tough conversation?

Someone has an objection to your approach, disagrees with your ideas, challenges your values, checks your decision-making, is uncomfortable with your style, feels that your behavior has been inappropriate. It’s a tough conversation!

This kind of conversation is hard to hear and even harder to act on. 

Someone wants you to do something different, often something quite different:

 different ideas,

different decisions,

a different approach to the problem.

Or they might say:

               Stop this behavior pattern.

                              Change the way you interact with me (or someone else).

                                             Soften (or strengthen) your tone of voice.

Whatever it is, something about you is not working for them and they are letting you know. How have you handled these conversations?

Personally, sometimes I have done well in the moment, sometimes poorly, and sometimes it has been an epic fail.

There is a wide menu of Epic Fail reactions to choose from:

·        Shut down.

·        Dismiss the feedback as irrelevant.

·        Negate them as “other” (someone whose opinion does not count, so neither does their feedback)

·        Listen with judgment about the person coming to me, and think of all the things I don’t like or respect about them.

·        Blow up. Defend myself. Attack. Set an angry explosive boundary: “don’t you dare talk to me like that.”

From experience I can tell you that not much good comes from any of these Epic Fail reactions.

Fear, anger, judgment, and contempt are not particularly helpful emotional guides, but they do seem to be able to command my attention and marshal my reaction.

BUT there have been other moments - golden moments in my life, as I reflect on them – when the feedback I was being given I received well.

Let me be clear, receiving feedback well does not require that the feedback be given well. Receiving feedback is up to us, the receiver. In the moments of real transformation and growth in my life I was able to do 1 simple thing.


And then, in the pause I took a couple deep breaths and chose. And the choice I made was to listen.

Really listen.

What I notice, as I look back on those moments is that I had to do 3 things at once. (Imagine that beach boardwalk juggler from your old vacation picture – balls in the air, quickly he begins, one, two, then three …)

I had to pause.

I had to take a couple deep breaths.

                                     And I had to choose to listen.

And while all of this was going on I had to do the hard work of holding my emotional reactions at bay.

It is not that those feelings were not present.

There they were: the hurt, the embarrassment, the anger, the sadness, or the reactive, rising judgment.

Somehow, I had to hold them off to the side and give the focus of my attention to what the person was saying, trying to deeply and simply understand:

“What are they trying to share with me?”

“What does this mean to them?

“Why do they feel it is important enough for me to hear?”

“What are their ideas about what I could do differently?”

“How can we move forward to a better place? Today? In the coming days/weeks?”

This thorough listening has been the key to my own growth.

Learning to Listen

In my experience coaching leaders, this ability to listen through an emotionally charged conversation is a skill people learn after the fact. Retrospectively. It is when we step back and reflect on an experience that went poorly, and walk through our reactions, that we begin to map a different path for ourselves.

Learning to listen is a skill every leader (yours truly included) can get better at.

Do you want to get better at receiving feedback?

Take on this exercise (first by yourself and then with a trusted friend or colleague):

Step 1: Choose a time when you did not receive feedback well.

·        Think back to a moment when feedback came, and your reaction was less than optimal. A time when you came unglued, perhaps.

Step 2: Map what happened inside your mind and body.

·        As you think back over that experience, what were you feeling? What changed in your body?

·        Did you tense up? Change your posture? What reaction began internally?

·        What thoughts began to arise in your mind?

Step 3: Explore a different path.

·        What changes could you have made with your body to help you listen?

·        What would have happened if you relaxed your jaw? Your shoulders? Uncrossed your arms?

·        What would have happened to your inner state if you had taken a deep breath?

·        When would have been the right moment to ask yourself to listen. To stay curious. To remain open.

·        What would have happened if you noticed the negative thought, and challenged that with a simple internal command.

Could you tell yourself:

“Wait.”  “Breathe.”  “Keep listening.”  “Relax.”  “Uncross your arms.”  “Stay open.”

Ask yourself some questions:

“What is s/he trying to tell me?”

“How can this be helpful to me in the future?”

“Try to understand their point of view.”

“What can I learn?”

Sometimes a simple statement can be made when someone comes to you angry or upset, and you are not able to hear what they are saying because of the way they are saying it.  Try something like, “I am willing to listen, and I need you to restate what you want me to hear in a way that is respectful and kind.”

Thinking through these scenarios, and learning from the past, can help make you a great receiver. 

Great leaders take time to develop their listening skills and, in turn, they become even better leaders!