Maggie Phelps: Reading between the lines of feedback

August 3, 2018

phelps maggieI’ve heard it a lot and I’ve said it myself: “I love feedback!” Yet, I wonder how many people love feedback. We welcome feedback because we recognize the benefits, knowing logically it’s valuable and it helps us to do better.

Unfortunately for all of us, logic isn’t the only thing involved. Emotion takes over when someone says, “I have some feedback for you.” When I hear that, I can’t help it; I’m put on immediate alert. My brain is saying to “have an open mind,” but my body feels ready for fight or flight.

When you ask for feedback, do you ever find yourself secretly hoping, in the back of your mind, that the responses you receive are all positive? And if you get all positive feedback, do you ever stop, before moving on, to probe for more constructive criticism? Do you ask for the stuff that’s tough to hear?

The reality of the feedback we receive is that it’s often incomplete and is almost always filtered. Rarely do we have someone in our lives who will tell it to us straight.

So that begs the question: How do we get honest feedback about ourselves when people hold back in giving real critiques?

First, we need to get honest with ourselves about our own openness to feedback. How does it make you feel when someone tells you something you don’t want to hear? In the past, with constructive feedback, have you used it to do things differently? If not, perhaps it could prompt some experimenting with how you receive and use feedback.

Second, we show others they can be honest with us by being as honest as we can with them. We must give to get. We also demonstrate in our reactions how open (or closed) to feedback we are. So it’s important that we find ways to manage our knee-jerk reactions when something strikes a chord.

My telltale sign when I’m upset or frustrated? My face gets really red. I’m working on how I can manage that reaction, first by labeling and understanding my triggers and by entering a feedback session with an open mind. When I fall short, I try to explain it by letting people know that, while I’m clearly bothered, I still value the honesty. If nothing else, by acknowledging our reactions, we can open a dialogue and take a first step in strengthening a trusting relationship.

Finally, and I think most important, we read between the lines. Again, feedback is filtered, so more important than the things that are said to us are the things not said to us. Think about what you hope someone thinks or says about you and then compare that with what they do tell you about yourself. Does your hope match the reality? What things are missing and why might that be?

Where words are lacking, look at behavior. How are you being approached? At work, are you being asked to take on new projects? Are you included in decisions or conversations? If you’re not getting the reactions or results you want, why might that be?

Reading between the lines can serve us when things aren’t going well—and even when things are going well. I’ll never forget the first 360 assessment I took. I was anxious to see my results, yet confident they would be highly positive. And they were. In fact, they were all positive.

After sifting through the scores and comments, I was lucky enough to have one-on-one time with a coach to explore them further. She asked me for my reactions and I told her I felt reassured and grateful. She said, “Anything else?” I had nothing. She responded, “Maggie, I’ll share with you what these results tell me: You’re not being challenged.”

Her comment hit me hard. She was absolutely right. It came at a time I was feeling torn between work I loved and a desire for something more. She opened my eyes to the real lesson. It wasn’t the words on the page that gave me the answer; it was reading between the lines.

Feedback can be a great gift for learning. If we are open-minded, aware of our receptiveness to criticism, and willing to explore below the surface of what we hear, we might be able to find the honest feedback we need to make ourselves better.•


Phelps is leadership initiatives manager at United Way of Central Indiana.

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