Giving and Receiving Feedback: Critical Friends

Throughout our entire life, we will constantly be giving and receiving feedback. Students alone receive hundreds of different types of feedback from assignments, quizzes, and tests each year. Many will receive scores on standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, MCAT, and DAT. As we grow older feedback will continue to follow us in the form of job interviews, business proposals, and employee evaluations.

Life is a journey of lifelong learning; giving feedback to employees, managers, and students is part of that process. Perhaps even more importantly, it is a journey of being on the receiving end of feedback regardless of how good or bad, right or wrong, or caring or callous it is and using it to grow. Giving and receiving feedback is a skill that can, and must be, learned to be an effective team member. Let’s take a look at the process of giving feedback constructively and receiving feedback well to improve both your own learning and the learning of those around you.

Why is Feedback Important?

Many of us choose to run at the sight of feedback, it can sometimes be painful and hurtful. But the truth is receiving feedback is good for you, it helps you grow. Everyone has blind spots; nobody has a complete picture of everything. Each individual person will perceive the world around them slightly differently and bring with them a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Some people might be better at seeing the big picture, while others are excellent at spotting small details. If we fail to account for the perspectives of others we are knowingly ignoring the experiences and perspectives that they add to our own.

If done well feedback from a supervisor given directly about one’s performance can improve productivity. Hugs that parents give their children when they’ve accomplished something can build confidence in their abilities. A smile from a stranger in appreciation for something you’ve done can encourage you to continue doing well. The hard truths from our close friends can give us a better understanding of where to go next.

Feedback comes in many shapes and sizes. It occurs when people thank us, rank us, or make comments about us. It can be in a formal or informal setting, subtle or obvious, vague or blunt. Regardless of which form it takes, the information we get about ourselves from others, combined with the experiences we learn about ourselves, are the way we learn from life.

Feedback is Hard.

We know feedback is useful and helpful, yet many people dread it regardless.

Those who give feedback often complain about getting rebuked and attacked for trying to give their honest and open thoughts about a topic. When they try to give feedback it often has the unintended consequences of its intent. This makes them less incentivized to give feedback in the future when it may be needed.

Those who receive feedback often complain of feedback being unfair and uncalled for. They may feel unappreciated and overworked and feel that others cannot make comments about their performance if they have not stepped in their shoes.

So both the giving and receiving ends of feedback feel they have been wronged. But who is correct? The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Both the giver and receiver of feedback are aware of different aspects in all feedback interactions. This is best shown by the illustration below from the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and the Art of Receiving Feedback Well. It is the gaps between the two that often lead to frustration on either end. For example, a receiver of feedback may judge themselves by their intentions while a giver of feedback judges them on their impact.

Thanks for the Feedback: Gaps in knowledge between giving and receiving feedback
From: Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and the Art of Receiving Feedback Well

Both sides should learn about giving and receiving feedback effectively so that when they get into similar situations they don’t fall for the same mistakes.

Giving Feedback Effectively

Giving feedback effectively is not a one size fits all task. It is highly dependent on a plethora of factors. That being said, these are some things that everyone should consider before giving feedback to another person:

Understand the Relationship and Context of the Feedback

All feedback occurs in the context of a relationship. Whether that’s from your parents asking you to do chores, to best friends encouraging you during exercise, to strangers yelling at you on the road. As a person giving feedback, it is important to invest time and energy into cultivating relationships that can facilitate the exchange of useful feedback. That way the person receiving the feedback is more open to hearing your point of view. Build familiarity, rapport, trust, and goodwill between yourself and the person you are giving feedback to.

Create Feedback that is Explicit, not Vague

Vague feedback is often extremely useless to others. If feedback is vague and negative it’s painful and pounding. If feedback is vague and positive it’s sweet but feels empty and not genuine. In contrast, feedback that is negative but explicit can dig deep and make important changes. Feedback that is positive and explicit can be precious and taken to heart. By being specific and using examples it shows that you have genuinely paid attention to their performance and are giving them feedback that they can act on.

Give Open-Ended Feedback

When giving feedback it’s important to frame the feedback in a way that is open to space for consideration and discussion. Don’t make your feedback seem like a brick wall with no way around it. Just because someone’s approach to a task is different doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong. Feedback should be a two-way conversation. Try structuring the feedback using words such as “I noticed that…”, “I wonder if…”, “Have you considered…”, “Something that might help…”, “One possibility could be…”.

Receiving Feedback Effectively

Likewise, as receivers of feedback, we must learn to be willing and able to absorb feedback from others if we are to effectively learn from them.

Understand that we all have Weaknesses and ask for Help

We all have weaknesses and blind spots in our understanding of ourselves. We aren’t aware of the big patterns in our behaviour or the tone in our voices. To truly see all sides of ourselves, including our blind spots, when need help from others. We have to genuinely hear other people out and listen to what they have to say. This comes by inviting others to offer you honest feedback.

Develop a Growth Mindset

If you have a fixed mindset, every time you encounter a situation it will feel like a challenge on whether or not you are smart enough for something. When we fail or receive feedback we think we aren’t good enough or we will never succeed at that task. This can become extremely discouraging. In contrast, we should develop growth mindsets. We shouldn’t be discouraged by failure and instead, view them as opportunities to learn and improve. Create a growth identity for yourself and believe that you can change, learn, grow and constantly evolve through effort and hard work. Look at opportunities as ways to stretch outside of your current capabilities so that you can learn something and improve.

Do not let Emotions Cloud your Judgement

Humans are extremely emotional, and we often let our emotions cloud our judgement of feedback. This is one of the biggest blocks to receiving feedback effectively. When we let our emotions take control we often get tunnel vision and focus on the negatives. In order to fully understand and assess the feedback, we first have to be mindful of our emotions. Whenever possible be in the right headspace to receive feedback, break down what the feedback is and isn’t about, constantly monitor how you are feeling while receiving feedback, and accept that you cannot control how other people feel about you. This is known as Amor Fati.

Don’t be afraid to ask for Clarification or Details

If you do not understand the advice being given you will be unable to implement it. Oftentimes when receiving advice we don’t understand we ignore it. Not only does this prevent us from implementing possibly important feedback it also does not convey to the giver of the feedback that their advice is not getting through. Discuss with each other preferences, roles, and mutual expectations and clarify anything you do not understand.

Set Boundaries for Yourself

Being able to say no is a skill itself, and it is a difficult one, especially in certain contexts. But it is also critical to building healthy relationships with others. Just because you receive feedback does not mean that you have to implement it. Sometimes someone else’s feedback may be incorrect or off-topic. It may not take into account your life experiences, assumptions, and values. You are your own person and can always choose to turn it down, as long as you fully understand the feedback being given. Understand that your decisions may have consequences for both yourself and others, but at the end of the day, the choice belongs to you.

Giving and Receiving Feedback Goes Both Ways

At the end of the day, there is no perfect system for feedback. But while these systems may be imperfect we should always try to find ways to improve them. To do so people within this system for feedback must learn to communicate more effectively between both givers and receivers. In this way, we can have the biggest impact on collectively improving as a group.

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