The beginning of a new school year means new volunteers, new policies, and new procedures. And sometimes that comes with opinions and feedback on how the new changes are going. So for the next couple of weeks, we’ll talk about receiving feedback well and asking the right questions.
That may seem backward. Shouldn’t asking the right questions happen before we talk about receiving feedback well? From my experiences, no.
Receiving feedback well is more about our heart than our questions.
We have to be mentally, emotionally, and prayerfully ready to hear feedback and accept it gracefully before we even start asking the questions. Otherwise, the responses to our questions get tangled up in our own emotions and blind spots.
As a young leader, I worked so hard to prove myself and gain the trust of parents and families that I often closed myself off to advice. I didn’t want to hear any constructive criticism because, in my perfectionist mind, it meant I was failing as a children’s pastor.
But the opposite is true. In reality, those very conversations I avoided out of fear of “failure” were actually the conversations that would help me succeed as a leader. Proverbs 19:20 says, “Get all the advice and instruction you can, so you will be wise the rest of your life” (NLT). (Free Printable of this verse coming Friday!) When we listen to feedback about our ministries, we become wise leaders, and there’s no better leader than a wise one.
I started reading books, praying intentionally, and seeking accountability for not only receiving feedback but inviting it. God worked in my heart to replace my pride and my perfectionism with humility and grace. He reminded me that my identity comes from Christ, not from my job title or what someone thinks about my ministry. The more I invited feedback, the less defensive I was about receiving it.
I’m still a work in progress when it comes to approaching feedback in a healthy way, but I do know that to receive feedback well, we have to change our mindset about what feedback is.
Most people think there are only two kinds of feedback: positive and negative. In their book on the science and art of receiving feedback well, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen (2014) discuss three kinds of feedback: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation.
1) Appreciation – Everyone knows (and loves) this kind of feedback. It’s the kind when someone lets us know what an awesome job we’re doing and how much our hard work is impacting their children. It’s the kind that makes us feel accomplished and encouraged and motivated to keep going. This feedback is often labeled “positive feedback,” and it points out the strengths of our ministry and our leadership.
2) Coaching – Coaching is feedback given to help us expand our knowledge, grow as a leader, and improve the ministry. In the church world, words like “mentorship” and “accountability” fall into this category. Coaching can also help show us our blind spots. All leaders have them. To deny our blind spots is the very affirmation that they exist. We have to be aware of our own weaknesses so we can more graciously accept feedback when others see things we might miss.
3) Evaluation – Evaluation ranks or rates our performance according to a set of personal or communal standards. This kind of feedback is the typically the most difficult to hear, especially when the evaluation ranks us below the desired expectations, although it can include positive feedback too.
The kind of feedback we hear may be different than the kind that is being given. The negative voices tend to be the loudest, and most negative feedback feels like evaluation when it’s really just coaching. This disconnect causes us to misinterpret and even miss out on an opportunity to grow. Both coaching and evaluation are often lumped together as “negative feedback” when actually, coaching is positive feedback in disguise.
Most of the time, people’s intentions are good even if their words or tones aren’t. When we learn to recognize the type of feedback we are hearing, we can better position our hearts and responses in a posture of learning rather than defense. So if we can hear their hearts first and their words second, what sounds like a demand for our ministry turns into a dream for our ministry.
You wouldn’t buy a new pair of shoes at first sight without trying them on and walking around in them a little. We can do the same with the feedback we hear. When we receive feedback, we shouldn’t immediately decide to either take or dismiss their thoughts and ideas. Let’s try it on and see how it fits. Check it against our ministry values and mission. Imagine ourselves taking their feedback and running with it. Then imagine ignoring it completely. Usually, there’s a middle ground that is healthier for everyone.
But turning these dreams into realities requires a team. So when someone came to me with what they saw as a problem in the ministry, I invited them to be part of the solution. Either they jumped in and I had another rock star team member, or they listed reasons they couldn’t help, and I could gracefully say I’d consider their ideas without committing to any further action.
Receiving feedback well does not mean you always take the feedback given. It means you engage in a conversation about how those ideas can help you improve a ministry that influences generations in the name of Jesus.