Sep 1, 2022 - Economy

How to take feedback

Illustration of a newspaper with the Axios logo and a thought bubble.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

In the summer of 2004, hours before John Kerry's nomination speech at the Democratic convention, Washington Post political editor Maralee Schwartz gut-punched me with some brutal feedback.

  • I was covering Kerry for The Post. But she said I didn't write fast enough or think big enough to capture this historic moment. John Harris (a Post star who later co-founded Politico with us) got the call instead.
  • I was pissed. She was right.

Why it matters: "Feedback is a gift," the management gurus say. But in my experience running two companies, it's a gift most don't truly want.

  • It's true at work and in relationships. Every time my wife gives me feedback, I respond defensively, telling her all the reasons I rock 😉.

But learning to accept the gift with wisdom and humility is a superpower we all need. It's the gateway to growth.

  • Whether in a workplace or a relationship, feedback — honest, no-B.S. insight on what you could do better — is priceless. Too many people mess it up by talking instead of listening.

 Here's my blunt feedback about taking blunt feedback:

  1. Listen! Don't make excuses or talk about the past. Actually, don't talk at all. Soak up, with self-confidence and humility, what the person is saying and take time before responding. When they're finished, you can say, "Good point" if you agree … or, "I hear you" if you want to think more about it. Or just: "Thank you."
  2. Assume positive intent. The selfish approach for the other person would be to suppress what they really think. If someone has the guts to be frank with you, embrace it and thank them. When Mike asks for critiques from people, he says: "I promise to take it in the spirit it's intended."
  3. Don't be defensive. That's the worst response to helpful feedback. It makes the person giving it feel unheard — and less likely to shoot straight with you in the future.
  4. Ask for it. You're more likely to get feedback if you ask peers or superiors — in a sincere, humble, open-minded way — how you could be more effective. That projects strength, not weakness.
  5. Act on it. If you show you're responsive, you’ll get more input. And you’ll get better at life and on the job.

Case in point: Often when you're giving a face-to-face review, people will validate and vindicate areas of weakness in the written eval.

  • "Jim doesn’t listen" or "Jim makes too many excuses" or "Jim doesn’t welcome constructive criticism."
  • If I then start excuse-peddling or butt-covering, I've kind of made their point.  

The bottom line: Life is about forward motion. Elicit and take feedback to make your personal and professional performance tomorrow better than today.

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