Thanks for the Feedback

Why do we dwell on criticism buried among an abundance of compliments and affirmations?

Feedback on a person’s performance which is then used as a basis for improvement is a natural element of some professions. Take sports as an example. An athlete has a constant stream of feedback to contend with. Whether this is the coach giving instructions from the sidelines, the roar of the crowd, the morale of team members, the look on the face of the opponent, or the physiological data collected on their cadence, heart rate or recovery time between hard efforts. Further feedback is then delivered post-game by watching game footage and analyzing positions, technique, work rate, commitment to the contest, adherence to the team plan or general game sense. Feedback is a natural part of being a sports person. If we put in a poor performance we want to know why and learn from it.

Not all professions are this open to feedback, however. Educators respond to feedback in different ways and with varying levels of comfort. An adverse reaction to challenging feedback can challenge our sense of who we are and what we stand for. Our identities are tied to a story that we tell ourselves. When feedback is received that challenges this story, our emotional bands are stretched and the elasticity of our emotions factor into the way this feedback affects us both physically and emotionally.

Thankfully, Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, outline how receiving (and giving) feedback is a skill that can be developed by cultivating a curious disposition, active listening techniques, and adopting an empathetic system thinking approach to conversation.

When we receive feedback we can question the substance of the feedback itself and thus dismiss it as wrong or unhelpful but often issues arise when we question the motives of the feedback giver. Our previous interactions, their credibility, experience, expertise and our level of trust all influence whether we can disentangle the feedback giver from the feedback itself. Heen and Stone invite their readers to recognize that we each bring a unique frame of reference and usually only see part of the problem (the part that the other person is contributing). Systems thinking corrects for the skew in any single perspective. We can seek to understand by asking questions like, “Tell me more” or “I hadn’t thought of it that way. Can you give me an example?” or even “Can you help me get perspective on your feedback?”

One of my big takeaways from the book is the fact that we often have multiple issues present in any feedback conversation that confuse, disorient and lead to conflict. When this occurs we need to be explicit and signpost that this is the case with a statement like, “I think that there are two topics here. Let’s discuss each topic fully, but separately, as both are important. Ok. Let’s loop back to the start and start with the first topic.”

I found this book to be a great compliment to the work that I am doing in the Growth Coaching Accreditation Program and highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to further develop their ability to give and receive feedback.

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