How to not suck at receiving feedback

Self-worth in a dishwasherI usually suck at receiving feedback. Even a constructive suggestion from my wife about loading the dishwasher feels like a personal attack, as if my very self-worth is tied to whether the dishes should face in or out. Yet in writing Working Out Loud, dozens of people are giving me feedback and I like it. Somehow I’ve learned to be grateful for the criticisms of my wife, my friends, and people I’ve only met via this blog. As a result, the book is already much, much better.

Three things helped me, and whether your goal is cleaner dishes or a better life, I hope they can help you too.

Frame the goal as a learning goal

Several years ago, Keith Ferrazzi first introduced me to the idea of framing things as learning goals. If I wanted to be a better public speaker, for example, he taught me not to ask “How was I?”after a talk but “What’s one thing I could do better?” That empowered the other person to give me constructive help instead of just simple encouragement.

Seth Godin wrote that “Applause is great. We all need more of it. But if you want to improve, you should actively seek feedback.” Besides, I’d much rather learn about weaknesses in the book now than read about them in Amazon reviews after I’ve published it.

Here’s some feedback that made me wince at first but made the book better. Sometimes, the reviewer is describing a section or my editorial style:

“you started to lose me”

“It felt that there were a lot of commas!”

“the exercise becomes a bit cheesy to me”

“intro wordy and a bit ‘la di da’”

Then there were more general comments:

“The one aspect I didn't really enjoy”

“While I was reading it, I didn’t get much sense of the overall reason for the content”

“Well, you asked me to be blunt...”

But the most negative comments were on the graphics I used. In the 82 pages draft, there were only two graphics and they were both universally hated.

“Surely, it’s just a placeholder”

“The pentagon of 5 elements...needs improvement because it is not interesting-looking or memorable”

Appreciate it as a gift

All of these particular comments were useful. The visuals did stink. I did use too many commas. The confusing parts were confusing.

But Ferrazzi also taught me that I didn’t have to take on every bit of feedback. After all, of the 25 pages of comments I received, there were sometimes conflicting suggestions or points I simply didn’t agree with.

Feedback is a gift. You accept it graciously and if it isn’t right for you after due consideration, you put it aside. Viewing it this way also helped me to take the criticism and myself less seriously. In The Art of Possibility, the conductor Ben Zander reinforced this when he described reacting to mistakes not with irritation but with “How fascinating!”

Choosing amateurish graphics doesn’t make me a bad author or even a bad selector of graphics. It just highlights an opportunity to improve in yet another area. “How fascinating!”

Accentuate the positive

It seems we’re all wired to look out for threats and overlook the good things. In a page full of positive comments, I’d immediately focus on the one criticism.

Being mindful of that tendency, I would purposefully read the positive feedback again and again. Besides bolstering my confidence, it helped me put the negative comments in perspective.

“I love this book.”

“I love the way you write.”

“LOVE LOVE LOVE a home run”

“The stories of people thru out, embedded in the chapters, are great.”

“Like your blogs, this draft is captivating and I didn't want to put it aside.”

“Eff YEAH!  So, so, SO exciting seeing it all come together REALLY REALLY REALLY awesome”

“I also selfishly wonder if there is a version for 11 - 13 years old which I can use with my daughter. I am serious!”

The results

A friend of mine is an author and when he heard how much feedback I was getting he mused to himself “What would you do with all of that?”

I thought “What would I have done without all of it?!” My early drafts were pathetic, like high school book reports full of quotes to show the teacher how much research I’ve done. Without the generosity of the reviewers, I may never have gotten beyond that stage.

In addition to making the book better, asking for and getting feedback has done something else, something surprising and even more important. It’s transformed the solitary experience of writing into a global communion, full of good feelings and intellectual exchanges. The book doesn’t feel like mine alone any more but like the collaboration of a small tribe. Now I'm about to send out another draft to another round of reviewers and I'm asking for other help: marketing, graphics, self-publishing, copyediting. I’m not good at any of these things but with the help and generosity of others, I can get better.

When it comes to getting feedback about something you care about, Seth Godin summed it up nicely just two days ago:

“Good advice is priceless. Not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. Not imaginary, but practical. Not based on fear, but on possibility. Not designed to make you feel better, designed to make you better.

Seek it out and embrace the true friends that care enough to risk sharing it.”