Why don’t people listen to feedback

I was collating my thoughts about feedback recently and I started to think about whether people listen to feedback. I like to think that my keen observations are helping people see things that they had been missing and, equipped with this new knowledge, that they will reflect on it and find improvements in their lives.

In short, the world will get better one conversation at a time.

Unfortunately I know that my words sometimes fall on deaf ears, which raises the question: Assuming someone asked for feedback and the feedback was potentially useful, why would they not listen?

People might talk more than they listen

I believe that sometimes people think that the feedback is for the benefit of the one giving the feedback, not the one receiving it.

For example:

  • Sometimes people want to return the compliment when they hear something nice. This is a good social skill, but it means that they might not stop to think about the feedback, they are too busy thinking about what they are saying as they compliment the feedback giver;
  • Sometimes people think they have to explain themselves, rather than considering the feedback, when it is not something they were hoping to hear. Unfortunately, this does not benefit either the giver or the receiver.

As an extreme example, let’s say that you built a house for someone but it had no roof. They then say that the rest of the house is nice, but that they would not move in because it has no roof.

The smart thing to do would be to consider the feedback and then thank them for providing helpful information. Based on their feedback you might decide, for example, to add a roof.

But what if, instead, you responded by explaining all the reasons that you did not put a roof on the house, or you started emphasising all of the other features of the house, hoping that the stakeholder would forget about the missing roof?

This sounds a bit silly. Yet I have seen people in many situations actually explain things to the feedback giver like this, rather than listen and consider the feedback.

So when receiving feedback, I guess the best thing to do is to say thankyou and then pause to consider it, rather than thinking about how to respond.

Similarly, if you are giving feedback when coaching someone, then you should anticipate that the person might respond like that. If that is the case then giving feedback involves more than just talking.

You should:

  • Think about what you are going to say, especially whether it is useful and how it might be received;
  • Say it; and
  • Listen for their response to see if they are processing the feedback, or responding with either justification or a response like selling other features or returning a complement.

Listening like this means that you can either redirect the conversation so that it focuses on the potential for learning.

Another reason that people might not listen to feedback though, is the fixed mindset that we all sometimes approach learning from. This means that we think we succeed or fail at something because we are naturally talented or untalented in a particular area. If this is true (that success is based on raw talent) then feedback is really a comment on whether we are talented or not, rather than a comment about something temporary that we can learn from.

Where someone thinks that the feedback is about them rather than their actions, then they will consider the feedback, but they will focus their energy on the wrong aspect of it. Rather than asking “what can I learn from that”? They will deflect their thinking to the question “How can I explain that?”

This means that the conversation goes off track. If a coach wants to bring it back on track, they have to deal with the distraction first and then come back to the potential learning opportunity. Sometimes this distraction is called the “mindset tax,” because it is like every coaching conversation loses focus to tackle the fixed mindset before getting back to learning.

There are, apparently, four “horsemen of the apocalypses” that people respond with when they are creating this mindset tax. If you listen to them respond to advice, coaching and feedback, they will say one of these things to let you know that you need to pay some tax before you continue with effective coaching:

  • Blame it on the rain: Explain things away as a one off circumstance, that is outside their control, meaning that there is nothing to learn here.
  • You are wrong, I rock: Rejecting the feedback and explaining how they actually did the right thing, meaning that they can focus on the things they want to hear rather then the feedback.
  • You are right, I suck: Taking the feedback as evidence that they lack talent and potential or taking it personally, meaning that they will beat themselves up or need reassurance before processing the feedback.
  • Optimist without a cause: Accepting the feedback and say they will do better, but have no plan and no sense of urgency, meaning that they see the feedback as something to talk about and not something to process or act on.

Well, that is a very quick and dirty explanation of the impact of a fixed mindset, but I can improve it if you give me some feedback on what was missing. But if you are interested then I think you will find this video is a pretty good summary of the concept:


So – what can you do when you encounter one of the 4 horsemen? I think it is the same as when people start explaining themselves rather than listening. You can either smile politely and move on, or you can view feedback as more than just talking.

So, again, the strategy that I think works is to:

  • Think about what to say;
  • Say it; and
  • Listen to their response to see how they are processing it, so that you can continue the conversation in a helpful way.

At least that is my current view. I am interested in your feedback (of course) and also happy to hear if you have similar experience, something to add on top of this, or a different view.


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