Five ways to get better at receiving feedback

Published on: February 5, 2020

When I just started my career as a developer there was a lot I didn't know yet. There also were a lot of things I didn't understand or had never done before. I have always been lucky enough to work in places where I was able to learn and grow as needed, and most importantly, I was allowed to make mistakes. One of the hardest things wasn't that I was constantly learning and figuring out. That actually was the fun part! The hard bit was often receiving feedback.

Whether it was feedback from clients, coworkers or teachers back in college. Something about getting feedback and learning about things I didn't get quite right, could have done better or differently always felt like it was some kind of an attack. You could argue that the feedback should have been delivered differently if that's the case, but the feedback usually was good and constructive. I just wasn't very good at receiving feedback.

Just like giving feedback, being able to receive it is a skill. It's something you learn to get better at over time. And in this week's quick tip I would like to leave you with a couple of lessons that I have learned over the years about receiving feedback in a productive, and positive manner.

1. Listen, don't defend

Something that I often found myself doing when I received feedback was coming up with counter-arguments or a defense against the feedback I was receiving. If somebody told me my code could have been better, I would tell them that my code was fine as it is. Or if somebody would point out that a specific animation wasn't quite right, I would immediately tell them that this was as good as it was going to get.

Not only does this make the feedback process very frustrating for both parties involved, but it also chips away from your credibility over time. When you tell somebody something can't be done, and a more senior developer helps you to get it done anyway, that doesn't reflect too good on you as the receiver of feedback.

It's much better to listen carefully to the feedback you're receiving. Or if the feedback is delivered via an email, Jira ticket, code review or any other digital medium, read it carefully. Don't think about any counter-arguments just yet. Just soak up whatever feedback you're getting, no matter how wrong you think it is at the time of receiving it. Especially if the feedback is delivered to you carefully and properly, you can rest assured that the person giving you feedback has the best intentions and wants to ship a fantastic product, just like you.

2. Let the feedback sink in

After listening to the feedback, or reading it all, it's very tempting to begin formulating a response immediately. Try not to do this. When you receive feedback that requires you to make a bunch of changes, or if you need to fix something you don't quite understand, or even think is impossible, chances are that your initial response is quite emotional. You worked really hard and now somebody is telling you that you didn't do a perfect job, of course you're not thrilled about that. That's normal.

It's important to let feedback sink in for a moment, let your initial knee-jerk reaction subside before you respond. I distinctly remember sending a few too many emails back to coworkers and even clients with very well thought out responses explaining why I did what I did, and why I didn't their feedback was justified, only to regret it hours later. I knew they were right, for some reason I just felt the need to explain myself and justify my work to the person giving me feedback. If I had waited an hour or so before responding, I probably would have seen things very differently, and my responses would have been different too.

3. Don't take it personally

This tip has been a game-changer for me. For the longest time, I took feedback personally. If somebody pointed out that an animation wasn't smooth, or that a label is misaligned it felt as if they were critiquing me. All I would hear is that I didn't do a good enough job implementing a design, or that my coding isn't good enough. Detaching yourself from your work is really hard, but I found that it makes receiving feedback a lot easier.

If feedback is given well, it never is an attack on you. It does not even critique on you as a person. It's an objective look at the work that was delivered. In the end, the purpose of giving and receiving feedback is to create a better product. Designers do their best to create a beautiful design, and as a developer, you try to do justice to this design while writing good code. The whole teams wants this project to succeed. So when somebody points out a flaw in the product, they are doing just that. They are not pointing out a flaw you made. They are looking at the product and pointing out a flaw in the product.

In a professional environment, nobody should be out to get you. Remember that.

4. Ask for more information if needed

Sometimes, feedback isn't delivered very well. Key information is missing, or you don't understand what somebody means. It's easy to bounce this kind of feedback off and ignore it. It's one less thing on your todo list. Unfortunately, this almost never works. The person providing feedback to you obviously cared enough to give this feedback to you. If it's not clear, ask for more information. Ask the person that gave you feedback to explain themselves.

This also applies in scenarios where you don't understand why somebody gave you certain feedback. If you're asked to refactor something in a code review but you don't understand why, you'll probably comply reluctantly. Instead, try asking this person for more information. Why do they want you to refactor? What do you gain from it? When you understand the why, implementing the feedback suddenly isn't so bad.

5. Ask for help

In my career, I have often ignored this advice. When receiving feedback, I would often explain why I did what I did, and why changing my work to address the feedback was either impossible or would take a tremendous amount of time. Being a junior developer with just a year or two experience, that's a bold statement to make. When you get feedback from a more senior developer, or designer asking you to improve something, chances are that they know that it can be done.

If this happens to you, don't jump into defense mode immediately. Instead, ask for help. Walk up to a coworker, your team lead or even the person giving you feedback and explain that you want to address their feedback but aren't quite sure how. You did a ton of research but couldn't figure out how to achieve the desired result. Doing this is good. There is no shame in admitting that you don't know how to do something and asking for help. It's much better to be honest when you're not sure about something and asking for help than it is to make a bold claim saying that something can't be done, only to be proven wrong later. That's not good for your self-esteem, and it also harms your credibility.

In summary

Receiving feedback can be hard. Especially if you're not very experienced yet. I hope that this post has given you some good tips to help you get better at receiving feedback. These tips are all derived from my own experiences as a developer over the past years and they really helped me grow as a developer.

If you have any questions about this post for me, or if you want to share your experiences with receiving feedback, don't hesitate to reach out on Twitter.


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