Distinguishing Helpful from Unhelpful Feedback

In a previous post, I reminded you that feedback is great, and I suggested three ways to get more value from any and all of the valid feedback that comes your way.

I also cautioned about the importance of distinguishing between useful, helpful feedback and feedback from people who: 1) don’t really know what they’re talking about and/or 2) are giving you feedback that’s more reflective of themselves rather than you.

I received an immediate avalanche of favorable comments laced with requests for more details. (An example of getting real value from feedback!)

So in this post, let’s explore some ways to distinguish valid, helpful feedback from the other kind:

Listen to Your Guts

A primary source of information on whether or not feedback is valid is your own internal organs, primarily your stomach and digestive tract. If your guts respond with equanimity upon hearing a certain piece of information about yourself, that’s a strong sign you already know it’s true.

If you’re uncomfortable with it, this could be because you’re hearing it for the first time, and the truth of it has not yet sunk in. But your discomfort could also be a reflection of your internal knowledge that the feedback simply isn’t true.

Another good indicator from your guts is your level of willingness to consider and evaluate a piece of negative feedback. If you don’t want to hear it and don’t want to think about it, that’s a strong sign your guts are telling you it’s true, but you’re not happy with that truth. On the other hand, there are cases in which you’re ready and willing to consider negative feedback because it reflects a problem you have already addressed.

Listen to People You Trust

It’s hard to ignore your guts, so they’ll probably be the first to help you identify the validity of feedback. But your friends, family, and trusted colleagues should be a close second.

That’s because other people tend to see you quite clearly – often more clearly than you see yourself. If and when they do, they are in a good position to evaluate whether the feedback you’re receiving is worth your consideration.

People you trust can not only help you identify whether it’s completely true, partially true, or totally off base, they can also expand on the basic point of the feedback in question. You can also benefit when they point out specific areas of your work and your life where the feedback does and does not apply.

Listen to the Source of the Feedback

This item is somewhat out of order, because if the source of the feedback is suspect for any reason – naiveté, ignorance, jealousy, projection, fear, and so forth – you needn’t consult either your guts or your trusted posse. You can pretty much discount the feedback entirely and/or chalk it up to another data point about the person providing it.

However, if the source of the feedback is not obviously flawed, you should still evaluate the feedback by considering the source. For example:

  • Is the source the kind of hammer/nail person who sees much of the world from a single point of view? While a stopped clock is still right twice a day, remember that the rest of the day it’s wrong.
  • Does the source have an axe to grind or a private agenda that may be driving some or all of the feedback s/he’s providing you?
  • Does the source give valid, individualized feedback to others? When a person offers “one size fits all” feedback to several people, it’s unlikely to fit you as well as it should.

One other point: If you hear the basic theme of the feedback frequently, and from different people, it may well deserve your full attention.

Listen to the Feedback

It should be obvious, but let’s state it anyway: evaluate each piece of feedback on its merits. A surprising amount of feedback is just flat-out wrong, and can therefore be discounted or rejected entirely. Some questions to ask include:

  • Did you actually do, say, or think whatever the feedback is based on?
  • Assuming you did it, does the feedback fairly analyze and/or evaluate what you did, say, or think? Does it consider the context in which you did it? Does it consider where any other people involved in the situation are coming from?
  • Assuming it does all this, does the feedback offer a sensible recommendation or remediation?

One final point: The strange truth is that even when your guts, your trusted posse, the source, and the information itself are all shoving the feedback to the “invalid” side of the ledger, you may still be able to glean some value from it.

“Invalid” feedback may prompt some introspection, or some creative thinking that may help you identify a helpful change you can make in your methods, your style, or your path toward the future.

In all of these various ways, feedback has the potential to help you learn more about your strengths and weaknesses, as well as to identify the best available opportunities to improve your level of productivity and success.

Important: If you are reading this anywhere else than your own email inbox, please click here to subscribe and have me send these posts to you directly in the future. If you feel this information is worthwhile, please consider sharing it with others and perhaps suggesting they subscribe. Thank you in advance for helping fulfill my dream – of making all of us more productive and successful – by spreading this information far and wide!

Scroll to Top