In observation of Women’s History Month, we are featuring blogs written by women who work at Vitalyst about their experience at the annual Pennsylvania Conference for Women, which was recently held in Philadelphia. For our second installment, Vitalyst Recruiter and HR Rep Carly Schlosser shares what she learned from Harvard Law’s Sheila Heen about the art of receiving feedback.

One of the many sessions I attended at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women was “Understanding the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback to Negotiate What Matters Most.” This topic interested me because, while I had learned the correct way to give feedback, I never learned how to receive it.

Sheila Heen

Sheila Heen

In her session, Heen, who has worked with the Harvard Negotiation Project for more than 20 years, focused on how to receive information and develop the ability to accept and utilize the input of others constructively. Here are four key takeaways:

  1. Feedback is often difficult to receive because of our own internal conflicts. As humans, we want to learn, but we also want to be respected and accepted the way we are now. This is where the clash occurs.
  2. There are three kinds of feedback—appreciation, coaching and evaluation. Each serves an important purpose, satisfies different needs and comes with its own set of challenges.

Appreciation: At a literal level, this type of feedback says “thanks,” but it also serves to acknowledge. It conveys messages like “I see you,” “I know how hard you’ve been working” and “You matter.” Appreciation motivates us—it gives us a bounce in our step and the energy to redouble our efforts. When people complain that they don’t get enough feedback at work, they often mean that they wonder whether anyone notices or cares how hard they’re working. They don’t want advice. They want appreciation.

Coaching: When you ask your boss for more direction, you’re asking for coaching. Coaching is aimed at trying to help someone learn, grow or change. The focus is on helping the person improve, whether it involves a skill, an idea, knowledge, or something else.

Evaluation: When your boss says your performance is “extremely strong” and that he’s grooming you for his job, that’s evaluation (in this case, positive). An evaluation tells you where you stand. It’s an assessment, ranking or rating. Evaluations are always, in some respect, comparisons against others or against a particular set of standards. They align expectations, clarify consequences and inform decision making.

  1. There are many reasons we may ignore feedback, including lack of respect for the source, pride, presentation of the feedback, and a belief that we cannot achieve the goals we have set or that have been set for us.
  2. All feedback has a past and a future. To get the most out of feedback you receive, ask questions of the person who is delivering it. Dig deeper and find out what they really mean, rather than making your own assumptions.

Feedback is often difficult to receive because of our own internal conflicts. As humans, we want to learn, but we also want to be respected and accepted the way we are now

Heen ended her session by proposing that we rephrase the way we ask for feedback. She suggested asking, “What’s one thing I’m doing or not doing that I can improve on?” In asking this very specific and direct question, you will help guide the source as to what information you are truly hoping to receive.

I’ve always been somewhat intimidated by the idea of receiving feedback. In past performance reviews, my nerves would get the best of me. I wasn’t open to the idea of receiving feedback because I thought it meant that I had failed.

This session helped me put things into perspective. I now realize that I receive (and give) feedback in one form or another every day—and I haven’t yet crumpled from fear of failure. Learning more about feedback’s different forms and understanding how to approach situations where I am the recipient have made me feel more comfortable and confident going forward.

Instead of fighting the feedback, I am going to make a point to embrace it. It may not always be what I want to hear, but by examining the source, asking the right questions and keeping an open mind, it will help me get ahead.

Sheila Heen is a New York Times business best-selling author, founder of Triad Consulting Group and a lecturer at Harvard Law School. Heen has spent the last 20 years with the Harvard Negotiation Project developing negotiation theory and practice. She is co-author of the New York Times best-sellers “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” and “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Even When It’s Off-Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered and Frankly, You’re Not in the Mood).” Heen is a graduate of Occidental College and Harvard Law School.

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