For over 12 years, I have been helping people and organizations engage in conversations that build trusting relationships, teams, and cultures.  No matter the organization, the industry, or an individual’s role, everyone tells me that they struggle with the difficult conversations needed when giving feedback.  My colleagues around the world report that the same is true for their clients. 

What is it about feedback that makes most of us want to run for the hills or, better still, stick our fingers in our ears and chant, ‘LA-LA-LA-LA-LA?’

As I see it, our first experiences with feedback come from our upbringing. With the good intention of attempting to socialize us, behaviours were constantly corrected. In response, most of us felt some degree of shame. Unfortunately, with enough repetition, these negative feelings about feedback get hardwired into our brain. 

The latest neuroscience tell us that our brain processes negative feedback in the same way that it processes danger and physical pain. When the amygdala, known as the sentry of our brain, senses danger, it initiates a biochemical response that floods the brain with the stress hormone cortisol in less than the blink of an eye. This Amygdala Hijack closes off access to the “thinking” part of our brain to preserve our energy for the upcoming “life-saving” response.

In today’s world, the stress that we experience – deadlines, angry customers, difficult conversations, and yes feedback – is obviously not life threatening as is a sabre tooth tiger, but it often feels that way. Yet, the biochemical response to today’s stressors remains the same as in primitive times. This response puts us in a state of mind that not only compromises our ability to give feedback in a way it can be received, but it impacts our ability to listen and actually let the information in. 

For many years, my colleagues and I have only been “teaching” our clients the fundamentals of how to give feedback. This solution, although helpful, seems to lack the “magic” that turns feedback into the “gift” it really can be. Together, we wondered: 

  • What if you could flip how you feel about feedback so that you welcome it?
  • What if you could look at receiving feedback as a learnable skill, and as the receiver of feedback, you understood that you actually can be the one in control of the conversation? 
  • What if you could look at receiving feedback as a gift that enables you to get better and better and use it to drive your own growth?
  • What if you could think of it as “feed forward” instead?

According to Sheila Heen, a Harvard Law School faculty member and expert in difficult negotiations, “in any exchange of feedback between the giver and receiver, it is the receiver who is really in charge. It is the receiver who decides what to let in, what sense to make of it and whether and how they are going to change.” Furthermore, Judith E. Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence, good conversations, even the difficult ones involving feedback, are the foundation of trusting relationships, teams, and cultures. 

So, my colleagues and I have found that using Conversational Intelligence as a framework for all of our conversations, even the difficult ones, help our clients become effective receivers of feedback. This, of course, leads to a culture that embraces feedback as a gift and encourages everyone to lean into both giving and receiving it.  

Here are some tips to help you become better at receiving Feedback and experience it as the gift it really is:

Be Open Minded – The feedback you are being given could be right and might help you. Being open to the possibility that even if it seems 98% “off the mark,” it’s worthwhile to look for the 2% truth. 

Don’t Shoot The Messenger – We often have a reaction to the person who is giving us the feedback, rather than hearing what they are trying to say. We need to be able to separate the “who” from the “what”.

This is NOT about your Identity – The feedback you are receiving is not a judgement on your personality. The story you tell yourself about the feedback you receive has everything to do with how you feel about it. It’s the feedback we have for ourselves that is often the most detrimental to our identity.  See feedback for what it is, which is suggestions on how to get better at something. 

Listen to Connect – Listen to connect, not correct. Learn to listen with curiosity.  Listen to understand the giver’s perspective. Even with perfect intentions, our actions sometimes can have an unintended impact. Feedback can reveal your blind spots, so be open to looking for the 2% Truth.

Check For Understanding – The giver of feedback may think they have been very clear on what they have said. You may be pretty sure you have understood. But in the words of Pentagon Spokesman Robert McCloskey: “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

Pause – Count to 10. This will give you time to be mindful of your immediate reactions, and reign in your Amygdala, leaving your “thinking brain” operational so you are open to receive and process the feedback.

Focus on What You Have Learned – It is your choice to implement the changes suggested in the feedback. Asking yourself ‘What would I do differently next time?’ is a great way to ensure you have learned something. 

Say Thank You – Even if you don’t agree with the feedback on this occasion, let the giver know you value their feedback. It’s just good manners.

So, think about it. 

What will it be like the next time you are offered some feedback?  

Will you unwrap the gift with curiosity and enthusiasm?


Daniel Golman – Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. 

Daniel Golman –

Judith E. Glaser – Conversational Intelligence®️