This blog post is Part 2 of the series Feedback for Engineers.

Receiving feedback can be just as difficult as giving it. Michael Lopp has a good post on the matter, Say the Hard Thing.

To receive feedback well, we should look at the macro and micro dynamics.

On a macro level, you need to be approachable. Folks need to know that you will be receptive to feedback. Cultivating relationships outside of serious conversations is important. Grabbing lunch or coffee, or chatting about things other than work can help communicate “Hey, I’m a real person who is approachable.”

On a micro level—or when you are in the process of receiving feedback—you need to be in full listening mode. One of the most important aspects to receiving feedback is to not immediately disagree or interrupt. The brain wants to switch into “fight” mode often, which means we get defensive. The most important thing you can do is to remain in half-duplex listening mode.

My personal rule that I’ve been playing with is All immediate reactions to feedback must be in the form of an earnest question. This helps me probe for more understanding without getting immediately defensive. It can help to have a few questions in your back pocket, while your brain goes into overdrive before you regain your wits. Here are a few that I use:

  • How long have you seen this behavior that you’re bringing up? How many other times have you seen it? What behavior did you expect?
  • How long have you waited before giving me this feedback? What could I do to shorten that amount of time next time?
  • Do you think others feel the same way? What do you think they would say?

These can help you process the information you’re hearing. First and foremost, you should always thank the person for feedback. They are likely just as uncomfortable as you are at this point in time. Delivering feedback can be just as difficult as receiving it.

Seek to Understand Expectations

The first step to acting on feedback it make sure you have enough of a shared understanding. Make sure you can at least agree on the objective aspects of it. If the two of you are digging a hole of sophistry, take a break and pick up the conversation later.

Probing questions to set the objective facts of a given situation along with the other person’s expectations of you in that situation can go a long way. Sometimes, it really just is a misunderstanding.

Work with the person delivering the feedback to come up with potential ways of addressing the feedback. When receiving feedback, it’s up to you to decide if you should take action on it. Work with the sender of the feedback to come to some shared understanding and workshop how you can get better.

Keeping an open mind is difficult. If this is hard, default to asking more questions.

Find the Signal in the Noise

It is very difficult giving feedback. This blog post series is being written because I know I am poor at giving feedback.

No matter how poorly-packaged the feedback may be, recognize that there will always be a little signal in every message no matter how noisy. Always assume positive intentions. If you are unable to assume your coworkers have your best interest in mind, effectively communicating feedback will be the least of your worries.

When receiving feedback, do your best to disambiguate the content from the delivery.

An Example: The Flip Side of Site Downtime

Let’s take a look at how we might receive the “Site Downtime” example above in the most graceful way.

Sender: …How do you feel about your behavior in this situation?

You: Thank you for bringing this up. I know I can get frustrated in situations where our customers are being affected, and when I feel like we could have avoided situations like this. Is this the first time you’ve seen me exhibit behavior like this?

Sender: [Answers the question]

You: Gotcha. I agree this behavior is not productive and can hurt my reputation with the team. I propose that I take two actions here to rectify the situation.

First, I’ll be more mindful of things that will come across as scorekeeping for past decisions, especially in times of crisis. I will instead work to participate constructively or save my thoughts for the post-mortem.

Second, it sounds like I can do a better job communicating and advocating for things like fixing the fragile deploy pipeline. I believe that these things will continue to get in the way of us being able to operate and improve the product, but it’s clear I may not have made that point. How does this sound?

Here we thank the sender for the feedback and then begin to work with them on ways of improving future situations. If you cannot switch into exploring areas of shared understanding (i.e. you’re heated), it’s totally okay to cut the conversation off quickly. “Thank you for the feedback, but I need some time to process this. Can we pick this up in a few [days or hours]?”

Conclusion

By getting better at receiving feedback, you will encourage others to continuously bring you feedback that they have. These textual examples will always fail to capture the most human aspects of giving feedback: the long pauses, the glances at the ground, the awkard silences, the strained voices.

This will only get better with practice, which is what we will cover in the post, Part 3: Activities for Encouraging Feedback on Your Team.

This post is part of the Feedback for Engineers series. Stay tuned for more!


Special thanks to Justin Duke, Emily Field, Omri Ben Shitrit, and Ketki Duvvuru for feedback on early drafts of this post.

Illustration by Ash Jin.

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