April 28, 2022

Thanks for the Feedback

“Thanks for the feedback.”

This phrase can be expressed with gratitude and appreciation, or, uttered with disdain and contempt. What makes the difference?

Feedback is a constant in our lives from birth. It can be both formal and informal, and can take the form of evaluations, coaching, grading, criticisms and advice, relating to our work, relationships, parenting, appearance, or schooling. We know that feedback is essential, however, we often dread it, and can even dismiss it. Receiving feedback is so crucial, yet so challenging. 

Giving and receiving feedback are some of life’s most difficult conversations. Have you ever noticed this? When we give feedback, we observe that the receiver isn’t good at receiving it. When we receive feedback, we observe that the giver isn’t good at giving it. So the problem with feedback lies with the other person, doesn’t it? These perceptions are common, yet through their research, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen (Thanks for the Feedback, 2014) found that the key person in a feedback conversation is not the giver, it is actually the receiver. The ability to receive feedback well is a skill that can be cultivated–and given that we can’t avoid receiving feedback, it is a necessary skill. 

There are barriers to receiving feedback well, triggers that will interfere with our ability to engage in a feedback conversation skillfully and thoughtfully. There are three main triggers that block feedback: Truth Triggers, Relationship Triggers, and Identity Triggers. Each is set off for a different reason and each provokes a different set of reactions and responses. 

Truth Triggers are set off by the content of the feedback itself–we believe it’s not helpful or simply untrue. In response, we can feel irritated, resentful, or wronged. Truth triggers make it hard to see–see the type of feedback; see what the giver means, and see ourselves clearly. Seeing the type of feedback means we need to work out the giver’s purpose. Are we getting appreciation (thanks), coaching (how to improve), or evaluation (how you add value)? Seeing what the giver means requires us to understand their perspective and we may need further clarification to help us interpret their view–to look through a “tell me more” lens. Seeing ourselves clearly takes vulnerability and a willingness to see our blind spots, which is challenging! We need to be open to discovering how we come across to others. I was recently told by a colleague that I come across as standoffish to new people. What I know to be insecurity and reserve, others perceive as formal, distant, and even unfriendly. It was quite confronting to hear, and I had to acknowledge that how I see myself didn’t align with how others see me. 

Relationship Triggers are set off by something about the person who is giving the feedback, or how we feel we are treated by that person. Maybe we think the person lacks credibility or is untrustworthy; we could feel they don’t appreciate or are blaming us. We are often more triggered by who is giving us feedback than by the feedback itself. I can attest that a damaged relationship increases the challenge of receiving feedback well. I find myself either begrudgingly accepting the feedback, but then essentially disregarding it regardless of its validity, or reacting emotionally to the feedback instead of responding rationally. In order to overcome relationship triggers, we need to separate the what from the who. If we switch the focus from their feedback to us, to our feedback to them, the one “who” overrides the “what” and the original feedback is blocked. We also need to identify the relationship system and understand the dynamic, and how each person contributes to the problems within the relationship. Again, vulnerability is vital in order to take responsibility for the role we play and be willing to discover the changes we can make. 

Identity Triggers are set off when we feel the feedback is threatening, we’re off balance and our defense mechanisms kick in. Identity is the story we tell ourselves about who we are–so when we receive feedback that disputes this story, we react. We need to understand the common biological wiring patterns and our own temperament to gain insight into why you react as you do, and why others don’t react the way you expect them to. Identity triggers are by far my greatest barrier to receiving feedback. A journey of self-reflection has helped me understand my wiring and reactions when my identity is threatened. As a people-pleaser, with a healthy dose of over-achiever and perfectionism (driven by shame), a regular part of my thought patterns for most of my life has revolved around questioning if I was good enough–my self-worth. Did I do enough? Did I do it right? What if I make a mistake? Do I deserve this? Am I worth it? With all of these culminating in the big, shame-driven driven question: what will people think? This is the perfect combination, when fueled by emotion, for the story I tell myself about what feedback means to become distorted. Feedback about how I can improve in one aspect of my teaching can become ‘they think I’m a bad teacher. An observation that a student was off task can become “they think I have poor behavior management.” I’m positive neither of these scenarios is true, yet I have a tendency to respond by exaggerating the words from the giver. We need to work to correct our distorted thinking and see feedback at the actual size. Being able to keep feedback in perspective allows us to engage and learn from it. Cultivating a growth identity, where we understand that our identity story traits aren’t fixed, helps us see feedback as valuable input for learning and growing.

After reading this, it may appear that ensuring a feedback conversation is successful is the sole responsibility of the person receiving the feedback. We all know this is not true, and there are many skills required to effectively give feedback. The message here for those giving feedback is that being aware of, and open to understanding, feedback triggers is just as important for givers as well as receivers of feedback. Know the person you are giving feedback to, what are their ways of knowing; how do they prefer to receive feedback; what type of feedback are they asking for? In an education setting, whether it be within an instructional or collegial coaching cycle, or as part of an evaluation process, have a pre-coaching and/or evaluation meeting and make finding this out a part of the conversation. Creating a culture where feedback is sought after, welcomed and taken on board, and not simply endured because it has to be, can be transformative and have a profound impact on all stakeholders.

So the next time you say, “Thanks for the feedback,” how do you mean it? 


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