Even when we ask for feedback, receiving it can be a tricky business. Let's consider why.....

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about giving feedback – that notion of the ‘clean sword’ that I was talking about last time – but also about my own relationship with feedback. I don’t know about you, but there are times when feedback is just what we want or need, but sometimes our brains go into hyper over-drive, and we may feel hurt, angry, or just plain confused by what we’ve just heard. Why is that?

Like most people I have been on the receiving end of some wonderfully helpful feedback (both of the appreciation and growth type), and some downright awful feedback that was probably intended to be growth but just went wrong in the delivery! I’d like to think that on the whole I am pretty receptive to it, and am able to make sense of it even when it’s poorly delivered. I was reflecting on an experience a few years back now; some of you may know that I paint in my spare time, and feeling a bit stuck and unsure of what to do next, I invited a very talented aspiring artist to critique my paintings. She willingly obliged and I spent an hour watching and listening to her dissect my ‘work’. Looking back, she was brutal – her style was not to mince her words, and because I was very attached to the subject of her scrutiny, I could probably have used a slightly softer approach. However, having said that, she got to the point. She told me what worked. She told me what didn’t work, and helped me to see why it didn’t work. She made some helpful suggestions re technique, materials, perspective, and use of colour that opened my eyes to what I was doing well and where I was falling into a hole. I found the experience challenging, and liberating at the same time. When I told a friend of mine about this, she was horrified. Her reaction was along the lines of ‘I would have told her where to go!’

So lets spend some time thinking about what might get in the way of us receiving feedback in quite the way it was intended.

When we are receiving feedback all sorts of things may be going on. Essentially this is all about self awareness; whilst the feedback is a great way to increase our self awareness, so too is a) noticing and b) exploring our response to the feedback. If we’re being triggered – why?

The 'triggers'

I think there are four key triggers in feedback . The first one is the truth trigger. When we perceive feedback as simply not being true we are far less likely to receive it well. In the case of my artist friend’s critique, there was no doubt that she was right. Some of my stuff was good, but some of it really wasn’t! And sometimes there’s a link here with the other triggers – our relationship with the feedback giver, and our identity; it just doesn’t add up to our story about who we are!

The second trigger is about the stuff we bring with us into every situation and relationship. We are, of course, the sum of all our experiences, and we’ve been getting feedback in some form or another since we were tiny. So it’s probably not surprising that sometimes feedback strikes a difficult chord and often this is because it hits up against a bit of our baggage – possibly about the very thing we are getting feedback on. In my case, the ‘baggage’ I was bringing to the scenario was probably related to my family response to report cards as a kid, as well as a ‘narrative’ about art vs academia.

The third trigger is about relationships. How well we receive feedback from someone is largely contingent on what we think of him or her. I’m sure there are people out there from whom you are happy to get feedback, and perhaps there are others that you are far less likely to be open to? Perhaps it’s worth taking a moment to stop and think about this – are there people that fit the ‘go to’ bill and others who you know you are more resistant to when it comes to feedback?

Your relationship triggers will be influenced by what we think about the person giving us feedback, as well as how we feel treated by them. In the first instance, we are likely to be thinking about their credibility in our eyes (who are they to be giving me feedback!!!!), their skill in giving it, and the extent to which we trust them and their motives in giving us feedback. We may also be questioning whether they appreciate us, respect us for who we are, and whether their treatment of us is fair or equitable. In my case, I had the utmost respect for the credibility of my feedback giver; I didn’t necessarily always agree with her but I could take her feedback and use it. I trusted her intentions completely. She probably needed to work on her style of giving feedback a little – a little more ‘clean sword’ would have been helpful!

Beyond the relationship trigger comes the other interesting element – our sense of identity. This is where the mirror and our blind spots come into play. For example, I am likely to be triggered by feedback if my story about who I am and your story about who am don’t add up! When feedback challenges or contradicts our identity – our story about ourself and who we are – can start to unravel! This can of course lead us back to the ‘truth’ question – who is right? There is also clearly a link here to the ‘baggage’ element but I think it helps to keep them separate. Our baggage is the result of our journey and we can’t rewrite history; we can, however, rewrite our narrative about our self if the one we have is not working for us.

How our brains are wired

In addition to the triggers, it’s helpful to also give some thought to our basic human wiring. How are brains work really do play a part in how we respond to feedback.

First of all, its important to remember that, as human beings, we really do have a negativity bias. It’s simple really – we survived as a species because we became very good at spotting threats and either fighting back or running away real fast! (Oh, and freezing, which sometimes works well in the face of a threat, and sometimes not so well). Whilst feedback is not in any sense of the imagination as threatening as a looming sabre toothed tiger, our brains are not that good at figuring this out. So, if we happen to perceive feedback coming in as a threat our brains might start screaming ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ in order to deal with it: we metaphorically punch out, or we might even retreat and go in on ourselves. Or we might simply freeze, leaving us unable to respond or unclear of what to do next. When our response seems extreme and out of proportion to the actual threat, this is often referred to as the amygdala hijack.

Secondly, consider that we all have a general baseline of happiness. Some people are just generally more upbeat, optimistic, and hopeful than others, and those people tend to be more open to feedback that might be construed as negative than those with a lower mood baseline. It’s also helpful to think about your emotional swing and recovery time. The extent to which our mood ‘swings’ high or low from the baseline is again very individual, as is the time it takes us to revert to the baseline. I know that I have quite a high swing but that my recovery time is pretty quick. What do you notice about yourself?

Thirdly, it can be helpful to think about your response to feedback in terms of having a fixed or growth mind-set. We are more likely to be responsive to feedback on the things we have a growth mind-set about, and less responsive to things about which we have a fixed mind-set. And remember, it’s unlikely that we have a purely fixed or growth mind-set about everything. It might be worth giving some thought to the things you have a fixed and growth mind-set about, and how that impacts your response to feedback.

And finally, it’s worth considering whether you have a tendency to engage in any of the ‘cognitive distortions’, such as over-generalising, all or nothing thinking, or even catastrophising. For example, if you have a tendency to over-generalise, it’s quite likely that you will take some feedback about one thing and assume it applies to everything, resulting in very strong feelings of anxiety, loss of self worth, etc.

Why not have a think about your own reactions to feedback? Are there people who trigger you? Does feedback sometimes feel like an attack on who you are as a person? What’s your baseline mood and how does feedback affect that? And can you recognise your relationship between feedback and your mindset?

So, in thinking about feedback, we need to be clear about the feedback we are preparing to give – whether it’s appreciation, growth, or evaluation – and the person receiving feedback also needs to be mindful of the feedback they want and need. You can see where this can all start to unravel if the feedback being given does not align with the feedback that is desired.

Stay tuned for my next instalment on feedback – which will focus on ‘top tips’, the difference between behaviour, intention, and impact, and a few thoughts on the 10000 hours to mastery idea!

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