Three triggers that make us hate feedback (and seven ways to minimise them)

No matter how much care someone takes with how they give us feedback, it’s often still tough to receive.

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen have identified three triggers that make feedback hard to hear and therefore make it difficult to find anything potentially helpful in what we’re being told. (This is the third in a short series of posts about how we think of feedback at Vanti. The first was on why we all need feedback, and the second was on how to get the type of feedback you need.)

1. Truth triggers – “But that’s so unfair”

This is triggered by the content of the feedback. We feel indignant or misunderstood because we fundamentally believe the feedback isn’t true.

2. Relationship triggers – “Who do they think they are?”

This is triggered by who is giving the feedback. We find the feedback hard to hear because we think the person who’s giving it is unqualified or personally biased. In fact, it might be the case that you would accept it if someone else were saying it.

3. Identity triggers – “I’m not that kind of person!”

This is for when feedback rocks our sense of who we are. In this case, we find feedback hard to hear because it makes us feel like our identity is coming undone.

Seven things you can do to make feedback easier to receive

Understand your patterns

What’s your response when hearing feedback? Is it to immediately go on the defensive? Do you find one of the triggers to be your major mode? Do you dive into the detail? Do you reject it all?

If you can find where you habitually go to, you can mitigate it, to some extent.

For example, whenever anyone says they need to speak to me about something, I immediately go to ‘Oh god, it’s over’. I’ve learned to let the adrenaline spike drop, plus ask for more info. Sometimes with a jokey question. In response to a worrisome email, I WhatsApped a client the other day asking, “Are you breaking up with me?” They didn’t respond for days. It was a nightmare.

I’m often able to mitigate identity triggers, which used to be majorly powerful for me, by preparing myself beforehand. Relaxing my body, keeping a long-term perspective, focusing on listening and understanding what exactly it is that they are saying, and where I agree.

It’s hard, though, at times.

Separate the ‘what’ from the ‘who’

Sometimes we can immediately reject feedback because of who it’s coming from and our relationship with them. ‘Of course they would say that… ‘ , ‘They just don’t get the long game I’m playing’, ‘[Job role] always think that way’.

We should at least give everyone a fair crack of the whip. Making an effort to understand the feedback, even if it’s just to ensure we’ve understood, can help.

There are always things others know about us that we don’t – particularly when it comes to our impact on them. Hold it as a possibility that there is some truth in what they’re saying.

If there are people who know you really well and you trust, it’s worth checking out the feedback just to see if they could help you to find the truth in it. Make it clear that you want a way in, rather than just wanting supportive solidarity!

Presume positive intent – at least to start with

This is a good principle in many arenas, but particularly when receiving ‘improvement’ feedback.

‘Improvement’ feedback can actually be two types – evaluative (judging you against a standard) or coaching (here’s how you could do better).

Presuming (even pretending) that someone’s suggestion is coaching feedback and their intention is that you do better (rather than a criticism of how you’re falling short of a standard) can help you.

When feedback feels like an attack on who you are, remember your outcomes and purpose

Sometimes we get personally involved with our work. So much so that any criticism feels like an attack on our very person. When I’d put together a class I used to teach, I had put so much into it, that even slight improvement feedback left me reeling.

At times like this, it can be good to remember outcomes and purpose.

Outcomes as in: what are you trying to achieve in this project? What’s the change you’re working towards?

Purpose as in: what is my purpose in life? What kind of person am I wanting to be? What kind of person am I?

Moving up to these levels can allow you to put the feedback in perspective. If you know you’re going into a feedback scenario, getting into this mindset in the minutes beforehand can really help you be ready and open to what you’re going to hear.

Remember: advice is almost always autobiographical

If it comes down to someone making a suggestion or a recommendation, they are very often saying, ‘This is what worked for me.’

Taking it in this way can allow you to be respectful – they are sharing what they see as the best course – and allow you to evaluate the advice to see if it fits your situation.

Help the advice-giver to be more descriptive

“You need to be more customer focused.”

It’s too easy to think we understand what someone else means, then have them think we haven’t listened because we didn’t change in the way they had in mind.

Ask “What does more customer-focused look like to you? If I were more customer-focused, what would you see me doing more or less of? Stop doing? Start doing? Is there something specific you’ve seen me do that has sparked this?”

Finding out what they had in mind builds shared understanding and allows you to evaluate the feedback in a more contextual way.

Even quite drastic-sounding feedback can turn out to be reasonably mundane when you dig down.

Be a feedback seeker

One of the major ways you can be more able to receive feedback is to request it. Be specific though.

Ask the people around you:

“What’s one you see me do that from your perspective is holding me back?”


“What’s one thing I could do to get better at x?”


“If you knew I was going to react positively, what’s one piece of feedback you’d give me?”

By seeking feedback, you can be in (more) control of your state of mind and the environment it’s given in.

Feedback is vital, even for very self-aware people

Remember the Johari Window. There are always aspects of how we affect the world that are invisible to us. Self-discovery only goes so far. We need to get others’ perspectives and the more we can find the useful feedback, the quicker we can grow.