One of my favorite leadership books is by author Sheila Heen called Thanks for the Feedback. In most corporate leadership circles you take management courses that teach you how to give feedback, but few rarely address how to be a good receiver of feedback. Among her many points, she mentions how our reactions to receiving feedback (even if it’s poorly delivered, inaccurate or from a not so respectable source)… that our reaction to feedback is what matters. Because our reaction is not only how we learn and grow (like how you learned to ride a bike or bake your grandmother’s famous poundcake), but part of how we set the example and influence those around us.
Think of the last time someone tried to correct you. Or tell you they thought you were wrong. That’s a type of feedback. If someone tells you how to parent. How to install a ceiling fan. How not to load the dishwasher. When you tell a child to look both ways before crossing. That article on how to budget. When your friend tells you that you don’t need another drink. It’s all feedback. That you have to decide what to do with.
But that’s the part we often miss. The processing and deciding what to do with the feedback. We often miss how much control we have in our response. We can claim “we had no choice”, “they made me do it”, “it’s their fault”. We can quickly and easily claim to be a victim, focusing more on how their feedback made us feel as a way to justify how we reacted. But it’s our response to their words, no matter what those words are, it’s our response that reveals our character, our patience, our kindness… our willingness to learn and become better versions of ourselves. A thoughtful, intentional, controlled response reveals strength and wisdom.
But some people are not willing to listen. Not willing to drop the defensiveness, the ego, the pride. You have a list forming in your head right now, of people who are quick on the trigger. Who don’t process and decide. People who aren’t good at receiving feedback. In fact you might be afraid to give them any at all, lest you be on the receiving end of their uncontrolled word vomit response.
We have an opportunity, you and I. We can choose to be different.
We can give others the benefit of the doubt when they give us feedback. Now it doesn’t mean we have to apply their feedback or their advice, or even adopt their position. But it does mean that I care enough about you as a human to listen to you and try to understand what you mean and why. And I choose to also believe you care enough about me as a human to give me this feedback, otherwise you wouldn’t take the risk to say anything at all. And in that recognition we can be open to change… or open to staying the same but now understanding another perspective. Either way we’ve chosen a response that signals strength of character, conviction, curiosity and compassion.
I’ve read the story of Cain and Abel multiple times before. But this time when I read it, I heard something different. God tried to coach Cain to be a better gift giver, and God tried to coach Cain to resist the temptation to react to his disappointment with anger and violence. But Cain wasn’t willing to listen. He wasn’t open to the feedback. He could have asked God… “What do you mean, I don’t understand? What should I do differently next time? Why? Help me do better.” He had a front row conversation and relationship with the creator of the universe and instead of curiosity and self improvement, in his anger and jealousy he killed his brother. He chose his response. And there were great big long lasting consequences for him, his family, and in actuality large parts of the human race.
The problem with Cain was not that his first offering to God wasn’t good enough. The problem was that he didn’t take the time to listen, to learn, to ask, to try and be better. He was given good advice, by someone who loved him and encouraged him to be better. But he let his feelings drive his response. He let his anger flow. God tried to warn Cain not to listen to his anger. God encouraged Cain to recognize it, but to choose to be better. Instead Cain chose to let his anger rule him.
You are powerful. Your words and your response to others matters. And people are listening. Your kids, your friends, your family, your parents, your coworkers. The way you respond to others in person and online, shapes how I think you’ll respond to me. So either you’re creating a space where you look for understanding, truth and curiosity to make yourself and the world around you better. Or you push others away, and discourage people from getting close to you because they don’t want to be on the receiving end of your response.
We have an opportunity, you and I.
Most people are convicted. They believe what they believe. Strongly. Passionately. Loudly. IN ALL CAPS. If that’s you, I challenge you to add the other two C’s. Demonstrate curiosity alongside your conviction, to sincerely learn about the convictions of others. Demonstrate compassion alongside your conviction, recognizing that someone can have a different opinion and still be worthy of being called a friend.
And ask God for his feedback. Seek to understand, and choose how you will respond. Choose.