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  • Gail Townsend

The art of giving, and receiving, feedback

The first part of this series explored the interdependencies between six key elements in creating a culture of healthy communication: vulnerability, feedback, awareness, learning, choice, and change. In this piece, we’ll unpack the risks involved in both giving and receiving feedback, and how to navigate through them.

A woman in an art gallery scrutinizing a painting.

Vulnerability, giving and receiving feedback, and effective communication in general can carry risks: When we disclose our inner thoughts and emotions, we expose to others our internal experience. Vulnerability also carries the risk of potentially changing our internal experience as we begin to see things from a different perspective besides our own. The vulnerability, feedback, self-awareness, learning, and intentional choice/behavior change cycle is in full motion. There are many benefits to this cycle of learning, but it does require an inner security, courage, and confidence to potentially face change.

Let’s explore further the risks associated with both sending and receiving feedback.

Risks in sending feedback:

  • The risk in expressing to another what we are experiencing internally is that the sender becomes internally known to the receiver. The sender exposes their true self and becomes openly visible to oneself and with others. When people have the courage to communicate what they feel and think at a specific moment in time and they open themselves to others and their reactions, the listeners learn how they really feel. Self-disclosures can feel vulnerable as individuals expose what is within them. When this vulnerable environment is present, it can feel unpredictable, frightening and risky.

  • The sender may be surprised and not fully resonate with other’s feelings about them. This creates an environment of two-way vulnerability as both the sender and receiver are in a situation of mutual self-disclosures and mutual awareness-raising.

Risks in receiving feedback:

  • It can feel risky to truly hear the other person’s perspective because it may mean having to reassess the receiver’s experience in that situation. The receiver could feel as though their points of view and experiences are different than originally thought. This can feel frightening and requires humility and a willingness to accept that their original perspectives were not accurate. It requires accepting the possibility that the original perception of the situation was incorrect. Can we accept the possibility that we may have been wrong in our interpretation of the situation?

Two men engage in lively conversation on a walk with coffees.

The power of active listening

One of the most powerful ways to fully hear and understand another person is active listening. Active listening means that we place ourselves in the shoes of the message sender. This requires us to paraphrase into our own words the thoughts and emotions of the other person and then state those words back to the other person to ensure understanding. In that process, the sender can verify that we heard them correctly (or discover we didn’t hear them correctly), and through exchange the receiver acquires further clarity.

Active listening requires that receivers of the messages withhold their own thoughts, emotions, judgments and evaluations. The intent is to truly hear, understand, and accept the others’ point of view. Acceptance does not equal agreement. Hearing, deep understanding, and acceptance are the primary objectives; that is, be fully present.

If we are vulnerable and wish to build, maintain, explore our relationships, feedback is one powerful way to acquire that information. This requires the intentional choice to be open to taking the risk to both send and receive messages in an open, non-judgmental, and non-defensive manner. Humility, compassion, care, and a no-blame approach are necessary.

Inauthentic vs. authentic presence

As a sender of feedback, the best use of oneself is to note the impulse to provide feedback and reflect carefully upon what is going on internally. Stop! Reflect upon what your motives are and the need to provide feedback at that moment. Are you really interested in helping the other person learn? What is your intention? Sometimes it helps to write these thoughts down and think about them prior to quickly sending messages. Introspection and care with words is an excellent way to begin the feedback process. It may seem mundane; however, this introspection may help to uncover one’s motives for giving feedback. This requires letting go of ego and being vulnerable so that your internal reflection provides space to assess your motives.

Show up with vulnerability and without pretense. Remove the mask that can hide who we really are. Be real with people. Being real means being authentic, present, humble and revealing that we are not perfect. No human is! Share mistakes. Share the learning from those mistakes. When we are vulnerable, people see us as being human. This approach can strengthen relationships. How many times have you said the words “I am sorry?” That expresses vulnerability and admission that one is not perfect. These examples of authentic presence help to create the environment of care and courage to both send and receive feedback.

A mature woman and younger man engaged in deep conversation on a park bench.

Tips for evaluating your relationship with feedback

To help with this journey of vulnerability, feedback, self-awareness, learning, choice, and change, the questions below may provide some insights regarding one’s approach to individual presence in the vulnerability and feedback process. It's worth repeating the words of Maya Angelou: “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

  • Recall a situation when you received feedback that influenced your future behavior. Recall another situation when you gave feedback that influenced someone else’s future behavior.

  • Recall another situation in which you gave feedback that did not have any influence on the other person. What were the differences between those situations?

  • Can you recall a feedback message that you have given repeatedly? Review that situation and see if you can explain why it never had the desired effect—and perhaps why it had the opposite effect? What might you do differently?

  • What further insights can you acquire by applying the Vulnerability and Feedback Cycle to help evaluate your experiences with vulnerability and feedback?

The 4th century Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi wrote, “Moving water distorts the reflection. Only in water that is still can a true reflection be seen."

Were you still as you reflected upon your experiences and your contributing behaviors to those experiences? Let’s commit to go forth and build a community of vulnerability, feedback, learning, choice, and change. Let’s create a caring, feedback-rich family and work cultures. Who is going to go first in the building of vulnerable relationships? Someone has to take the risk to be vulnerable first. This begins the creation of an authentic, vulnerable feedback environment.

Reframing feedback

Lastly, I suggest that we reframe the term “feedback” as “continuous learning.” People who care send feedback in a curious, compassionate, and non-blameful manner. People who care respectfully receive feedback in a curious, humble, and non-blameful manner. This allows learning to take place.

Authentic vulnerability helps with building trusting connections with others. We can grow to live our most meaningful lives by facing our vulnerabilities. Be okay with being open and not having all the answers. We will further develop our strengths to live our most meaningful life!

And finally, some feedback for my continuous learning and feedback mentors: Thank you for being a continuous learning role model and mentor for me. You taught me so much about these topics!


Failure to Listen, Maya Angelou, Maya Angelou: I’ve Learned – Failure To Listen

Building a Feedback Rich Culture, Harvard Business Review, Ed Batista

Leadership Effectiveness Training, Thomas Gordon

Vulnerability is not a weakness, Sandra Parker, Psychology Today. Vulnerability is not a weakness

The Different Drum - Community Making and Peace, M. Scott Peck

What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback, Charles N. Seashore, Edith W. Seashore, Gerald M. Weinberg

Finding your essential self: the ancient philosophy of Zhuangzi explained (


Gail Townsend holds a Masters degree in Organization Development from American University, a Masters degree in Human Development, and a Doctorate degree in Human and Organization Systems from Fielding Graduate University. She contributed as a global OD specialist, as a global HR business partner, and as an internal educator while employed at Gore. In addition to being a business and cultural advisor at MeaningSphere, she is also adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware and at Colorado State University, Global. Her areas of expertise are in leading change; leadership development; team effectiveness; diversity, equity and inclusion; individual development and coaching; communication skills, intentional use of self; and, as an educator in skill development in these areas. Most importantly, she is the mother of two wonderful daughters and grandmother to four beautiful grandchildren.

Photo credit: Shutterstock


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