Learning to Receive Feedback

Separating truth from story

By Ken Norton

5 min read • Mar 4, 2022

Ken Norton

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Often a coaching client will bring a piece of feedback to our session that they’re struggling to interpret. Maybe it was something that came up in a formal 360-degree performance review. Perhaps it was harsh criticism delivered by a peer during a heated conversation. Or maybe it was simply a passing comment from the CEO that has lived rent-free in their brain ever since.

In the workplace, we swim in an ocean of feedback. Much of it is beneficial and immediately processed and internalized. But a lot of it may seem unfair, be poorly delivered, or seem to cut to the very core of our identity. Learning to give and receive feedback is crucial for anyone, especially leaders. But it’s hard to provide good feedback until you’ve learned to accept it. It’s something I’ve personally struggled with my entire career and the focus of this month’s newsletter.

Don’t rush to react

When you’re given feedback, especially when you sense that it’s pushing your buttons, take a deep breath and pause for a beat before responding. It’s easy to let our emotions get the best of us in these moments. That can mean anything from shutting down and going silent to lashing out and punching a wall. I’ve learned to recite a simple mantra when I get feedback: “Thank you, I will reflect on that.” That gives you time and space to process.

Look at the triggers

In the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen identify three “feedback triggers” that can interfere with our ability to receive feedback:

  1. Truth Triggers: The challenge to “see” — the substance of the feedback itself (it’s unfair, simplistic, unhelpful, petty, or just plain wrong).
  2. Relationship Triggers: The challenge of “we” — what we believe about the feedback giver and our relationship (the feedback giver is stupid, they don’t have my best interests in mind, they’re biased, they don’t respect me, they have no credibility on this topic, they’re less experienced, or they’re just trying to get ahead).
  3. Identity Triggers: The challenge of “me” — how the feedback relates to what we believe about ourselves (it feeds a negative narrative that I’m horrible at this, it’s inconsistent with my public image, or shatters my self-image in some way).

Take a moment to dissect the feedback against each of these three dimensions.


What kind of feedback is this? Feedback is usually three different things with different purposes: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. Can you separate the pieces? For example, you might be so frustrated with the evaluation (a “meets expectations” rating) that you miss the appreciation (“you’re a valued member of the team”) and the coaching (“you need to prioritize developing your team over hands-on individual contributor work”). Although the evaluation can drown out the rest of the feedback, ultimately, the appreciation will provide you with motivation and encouragement, and the coaching will help you grow.


What do you think about the feedback giver? Are they credible? Do you respect them? Are their motives suspect? Evaluate the relationship system. Are your differences preventing you from extracting the truth of the feedback? Are the roles you play in the organization a part of this?


Identity triggers often latch on to your self-image, either conflicting or reinforcing it. For example, “I’m known for being friendly and likable, so how can someone say I was abrupt and inconsiderate?” Or, “They said I’m not assertive enough, that’s no surprise since I’ve always been too timid, and this is further evidence that I’m not cut out for leadership.” The saboteur is adept at finding these hooks, looking for every excuse to interpret the feedback judgmentally.

What story are you telling?

How do you extract the nuggets of truth if they’re in there? Is my saboteur or inner critic crafting the narrative? To tease apart the truth from the story—especially when it confronts identity—try this approach from the Conscious Leadership Group:

  • Step 1. Define a recurring issue that you are willing to shift. For example, “I’m not assertive enough.”
  • Step 2. Write down all of the facts related to the issue. For example, “I rarely speak up in executive meetings. I wait for people on my team to speak first. I wait to be called on by our CEO.”
  • Step 3. Write down all of the stories you have about the facts. For example, “I’m too timid. I’m just not cut out for leadership.”
  • Step 4. Look for examples of how the opposite of each of your stories is at least as true. Sometimes you’ll find this in the exact feedback you’re trying to process! For example, “Elsewhere in the performance review, my manager praised my leadership abilities. Members of my team consistently praise me as well. Last week, I was told by a peer how much they appreciate that I shine the spotlight on my team. When I have the facts, I’m quick to speak with confidence.”

Connect with your values

Step back and ask yourself, “what values of mine are being honored or stepped over in this feedback?” For example, feedback to “be more assertive and commanding in meetings” might cause a truth trigger because it conflicts with your values of humility and servant leadership. If you find yourself trying to resolve a conflict between feedback and values, ask yourself how you might take the coaching in a way that best honors those values. “How might I be more assertive in a way that honors my values of humility and putting the team first?” If there is no way to resolve this conflict, perhaps the coaching part of the feedback isn’t right for you, but there might be a more profound lesson to be learned.

Celebrate the appreciation

If you’re like me, some of the most challenging feedback to receive is the most positive. Words of appreciation can seem fluffy and unnecessary. I want to know what I did wrong to get better, don’t waste my time with praise! I would deflect, reciprocate, or discount compliments with internal justifications that “they say that to everyone,” or “they’re only saying that to be nice.” Years ago, my own coach challenged me to change my perspective: “These people are giving you a thoughtful and considerate gift, chosen just for you because they appreciate you and want you to know that. What does it do to them when you casually dismiss it or disagree?” Instead, try the three a’s: accept, amplify, and advance:

  • Accept by saying thank you and expressing genuine gratitude.
  • Amplify by savoring the praise and letting it warm your heart.
  • Advance by asking questions to further the relationship and connect deeper to the feedback giver.

Permit yourself to disagree

There’s an adage that feedback is someone holding up a mirror—you get to decide what you see. There may be times when—after all of the steps above—you decide you disagree with the feedback. Maybe it’s just completely wrong. Or it’s an entirely subjective opinion (how many people have told Bruce Springsteen he’s a lousy singer?). Perhaps it conflicts with your values. Or you might have extracted some truth from the feedback but disagree with the coaching. You are the architect of your own life, and growth requires you to be willing to receive feedback and be the one to decide what you’ll do with it.

Feedback is a gift. Whether you choose to put that gift in a prominent place of honor, tuck it away in a drawer, or toss it in the trash is up to you. All you’re obligated to do is say “thank you.”

Originally Published: March 4, 2022

This article was originally published to my private newsletter exclusively for executive coaching clients and alumni

Ken Norton is an executive coach who works with product leaders. He spent more than 14 years at Google where he built products used by more than 3 billion people.