Many of the female leaders that I coach tell me that getting candid feedback from their supervisors is quite difficult.  They further explain that their supervisors seem to believe that there just isn’t enough time to get into a feedback discussion.

Has that ever happened to you?

After digging deeper, I have learned that both the givers and receivers of feedback, no matter where they are in the hierarchy, believe that the process can be fraught with difficult emotions that can potentially lead to conflict.

The receivers of feedback complain that the feedback (whether it is positive or negative) is often vague. As one of my clients said, “I’m not sure what exactly I am being praised for, and I have no idea what I need to keep doing or what to work on to make me promotable.”

And guess what? On the other side of the feedback process, the givers tell me that they avoid giving difficult feedback for fear of being too harsh, hurting feelings or appearing biased. And surprisingly, both new emerging leaders, as well as the most seasoned leaders, tell me that to avoid potentially uncomfortable reactions they either don’t give honest (probably difficult) feedback or they sugar coat it.

My 36-year-old client Louise has been in a director role for 4 years now; here is how she describes her dilemma with getting the feedback she needs:

  • I don’t know what growth looks like for me in this organization.
  • No one seems to be paying attention to the work that I am doing.
  • My weekly 1-on-1 with my manager often gets canceled.
  • My direct reports are afraid to tell me about my impact.
  • When I get feedback, it is mostly positive and vague.

And to describe the overall impact this has had on her she says:

“My confidence is so down!!”

Receiving meaningful feedback can make the difference between getting a promotion or being passed over.

Louise told me that when she does receive feedback she tends to focus on the negative, feel attacked, and spend too much time justifying why she did what she did.  This becomes so humiliating.

This resonates with the research done by G. Kartini Shastry, Olga Shurchkov, and Lingjun “Lotus” Xia which found that women repeatedly internalize negative feedback and this takes a huge chunk out of their self-worth.

The dilemma here is that without feedback, it is hard to improve. But for feedback to be effective, the receiver must be open and curious to learn what she can do differently.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the receiver is the one with the most influence in the feedback conversation.

Look for the 2% Truth

As the receiver, it is important to look for the 2% truth. There is (nearly) always a 2% truth in all feedback. I have found that even in the harshest and uncalled for comment, there is a kernel of truth. Being able to see this and learn from it makes a huge difference in our personal and professional growth.

As the receiver of feedback, you have the power to make the feedback conversation successful, no matter how difficult it is.

  • Stepping back in order to not be triggered by the feedback.
  • Guiding the conversation to make the feedback specific, detailed, and actionable.
  • Looking for the 2% truth.
  • Creating a development plan with suggestions for growth.

Let’s look at how the brain informs our reaction to feedback. 

Most of us have an automatic knee-jerk defensive reaction to feedback. It is the same reaction our brains have to danger, and it leads to an inability to put negative feedback in a context that can help us work toward our goals.

This skewed perception of the feedback process often comes from the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our place in the world.

Consider that, our first experiences with feedback come from our family of origin.  Our primary caregivers, in an earnest attempt to socialize us, constantly corrected our behavior, and our natural response was one of shame. But if we were lucky, we also got some positive feedback.  Unfortunately, negative words stick. We tend to hold on tightly to negative messages, and they tend to override any positive messages we receive.

Here is Why

Our brain experiences negative feedback in the same way that it experiences physical pain and sees it as a direct threat. The latest brain neuroscience tells us that this threat can cause both the giver and the receiver’s stress hormone (cortisol) levels to rise. As a result, the prefrontal cortex, our higher-order thinking shuts down and our ability to learn and change is compromised. No wonder we can’t productively receive feedback. It’s how our brain works. Our need to avoid pain and move away from shame (negative feedback) trumps our need to know more.

How to claim your power as the Receiver of Feedback

Since the objective of constructive feedback is to help one focus on the positives it is in our best interest to learn how to receive feedback as the gift it actually can be.

We all have areas in which we need improvement. Feedback and constructive criticism is an important way of identifying this.  We must adjust our mindset and understand that those who take the time to give us feedback do so because they care to invest in us.  If they are not giving up on us, then why should we? And if the feedback is vague and you have no idea what to do going forward, then it is your responsibility to help the giver be more specific.

Feedback done well is a two-way street. Giving and receiving honest feedback creates equity and balances working relationships. And the feedback process not only depends upon trust and psychological safety, but it also serves to further build that trust.

What we can do to keep feedback from derailing us?

The short answer is to develop your “feedback muscle”. That means that we should make asking for feedback a habit, and then make sure we do something with it.

Research shows that the most successful leaders ask for feedback often, and they are transparent about what they do with it.  According to a study done by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, “Leaders who ranked at the top 10% in asking for feedback were rated, on average, at the 86th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness.”

Interestingly, one of the ways to get meaningful, specific, and actionable feedback is to ask for “advice” (instead of feedback), and ask for it often. This gives you the chance to “course correct” and do something about your performance in the present moment.

How are you at receiving feedback?

  • Do you automatically justify instead of listening with curiosity?
  • Do you internally respond by trying to disparage the giver of feedback, in order to dismiss the feedback as invalid?
  • Do you mentally disengage, because it is just too upsetting to hear the feedback?
  • Do you suspect that the person giving you the feedback isn’t neutral but is holding on to past grievances and therefore inclined to see the worst in you?

If you said yes to any of the above, then I am betting that you too probably resist entering into feedback discussions.

Here is what you can do to develop your feedback muscle:

  1. Make it specific: When we ask for advice instead of feedback, research suggests that we will receive more specific, critical, and actionable information.
  2. Practice: By asking a trusted friend, family member, or colleague to give you suggestions on how you can improve.
  3. Listen: Make a commitment to listen openly without judgment to what they have to say.
  4. Curiosity: Be genuinely curious as you ask for more information.
  5. Listen for the 2% truth!
  6. Experimenting: Take notes and then make a plan to experiment with the suggested changes.
  7. Thank you: Always thank the giver of feedback for their valuable input.

Once you have mastered the art of receiving feedback, you will notice that the act of giving feedback becomes a breeze.

Tell me how this works for you!

And if you have any questions, comments or would like help with your feedback conversations – just email me at


Conversational Intelligence®, Judith E. Glaser, Bibliomotion Inc, Brookline, MA, 2014

Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Duglas Stone and Sheila Heen, Penguin Random House,

Angelika Dimoka, What Does the Brain Tell Us About Trust and Distrust: Evidence for a Functional Neuroimaging Study,

Joseph R. Folkman; The Power of Feedback, Wiley Publishing, Hoboken New Jersey 2006

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