Feedback: Food for thought

Feedback: Food for thought

We want to learn and grow, fulfil our potential and make a positive contribution. In an academic setting, we may worry about meeting the requirements to complete a degree. In the workplace, we may wonder how our work will be evaluated.

Feedback refers to any information we receive related to us. From a broad perspective, it is how we learn from our experiences and others.

We also want to be accepted and respected for who we are now. Feedback presents us with a challenge: on the one hand, we want to hear about what we need to improve, and we also want to hear that we are doing well.1Stone, D. & Sheen, S. Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well. New York: Penguin.

Waiting for feedback in an academic or professional setting can be unsettling, especially when we have worked hard to improve and reach a high standard and meet deadlines.

Benefits of feedback for personal and professional development

According to research, life-long learning and development provides satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment. At work and in studies, feedback plays a vital role in developing our knowledge, skills, teamwork, problem-solving skills and more. 

Viewing feedback as information intended to help us develop our skills and improve can help us focus on what is useful. It is about the work, not us.

When we adopt a flexible attitude and an open mind, we can listen to feedback and engage with confidence and curiosity. It is also helpful to take a step back and gain some distance to view feedback from a neutral perspective. This will enable you to focus on the information provided.2ibid

What makes receiving feedback difficult?

Fear of failure can be an obstacle to seeking feedback, particularly if we are concerned about whether our work is as good as we hope.Sometimes, we experience ambivalence due to wanting recognition of our effort, drive to learn and improve our work.

It is normal to have doubts as we try to understand new information. In fact, this is part of the learning process. Feedback provides us with new perspectives and information that answer our questions and increase our understanding.

However, it is common to experience some resistance to it because of possible negative comments that we may hear as criticism. Although wondering about the outcome is normal, it is unhelpful to focus on worrying thoughts about what might be said as it causes unnecessary distress.

Sometimes the feedback we receive may be vague, poorly delivered, or we may feel it is unfair. It is not about what is said, but how it is said. We listen to the tone of voice and words used by the person giving us feedback. We are more open to listening when the information being provided comes from a credible, honest and trustworthy source.3ibid

We can draw boundaries by taking time to reflect and gain perspective. It is also beneficial to seek clarification to address any concerns or misunderstandings. Asking for additional context can help put comments into perspective. Then we can focus on information that will help us improve our skills and boost our confidence.4Harris, R. (2010) The confidence gap. From fear to freedom. London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd.

When we are stressed, it is more difficult to deal with feedback that focuses on our mistakes, as it highlights what is wrong. In addition, it can feel like our effort has not been taken into account. Monitoring our stress levels enables us to identify when we need to take a break to restore our energy.5McGonigal, K. (2015) The upside of stress. Why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it). London: Vermilion.

By acknowledging our efforts and maintaining a flexible attitude as well as assuming a positive intent, we can manage our reactions to feedback.6David, S. (2016) Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life. London: Penguin Books.

When receiving sensitive feedback, we may feel it questions our ability and affects our confidence. Instead of dwelling on the negative aspects, we can channel our energy into problem-solving to improve our work.

To manage self-criticism and reduce tension it is helpful to practise self-compassion. Our mind seeks certainty and stability, so when feedback challenges us, it can be unsettling. At these times, acknowledging our feelings and connecting with our values can direct our attention to what we can do in the moment.7Gilbert, P. & Choden, (2013) Mindful compassion. Using the power of mindfulness and compassion to transform our lives. Great Britain: Robinson

When we are kind and understanding toward ourselves as we are with our friends, it reduces tension as we recognise that everyone makes mistakes and experiences setbacks.

Feedback as a learning tool

When engaging in long-term projects, and learning new things, we stretch beyond our comfort zone. Developing a growth mindset allows us to expect and accept mistakes, so we can embrace challenges as a necessary element of our development.8Dweck, C. S. (2017) Mindset. Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential. London: Robinson

It is normal when doing work that we value to want to do it well. It takes time to learn new things and it is normal to have doubts as we try to understand new information. Feedback provides us with novel perspectives and information that provide insights and can answer our questions.

It is an opportunity to reflect on our work and identify ways of making improvements. This revision process enables us to understand better. Through practice, we can develop our knowledge and skills to improve our academic performance.

Strategies to make the most of feedback

Reframe the meaning of feedback: Instead of viewing it as negative criticism, we can view it as useful information that contributes to our learning.

Often, our apprehension is related to a lack of tolerance for uncertainty. Our imagination creates scenarios where our mistakes lead to negative consequences. We worry about failing. Instead, we can interpret these feelings as a sign that we care about good work. By maintaining an open mind and being curious to get unstuck and focus on the possibilities for improvement.9Fishbach, A. (2022) Forget quit undone. Surprising Sessions from the science of motivation. New York: Little Brown, Spark.

Focus on growth, not perfection: Managing initial reactions when feedback is challenging. Often, when mistakes are pointed out we assume it means we are not reaching a high standard.

Practising patience and learning to tolerate distress enables us to manage our reactions. We can view our thoughts and feelings as signals that our work matters to us.10ibid

Instead of striving for perfection, we can focus on mastery. Reflecting on past feedback, we can identify patterns and use our insights to make adjustments. By prioritising learning from experience, we can make progress.11Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. USA: McGraw-Hill.

When we are not sure about how to interpret the information, by seeking clarification and asking questions to gain a deeper understanding. We can choose which elements of feedback can help us improve, making the most of feedback.

Rather than expecting not to make mistakes, viewing them as an essential part of learning will reduce tension. As we track our efforts we can see how much we have improved.

It requires patience and perseverance to develop these skills. Giving ourselves credit for our efforts and acknowledging each small step will boost our perseverance.

Manage stress: When we are stressed, it is more difficult to receive feedback as we have less energy to manage our emotions. As we are preoccupied it is challenging to maintain an open mind.

Practising relaxation strategies, and exercising, helps us manage stress and restore energy. Taking time to slow down and practising mindful breathing reduces tension and brings focus to the present moment.12Ratey, J. & Hagerman, E. (2010) Spark. How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London: Quercus.

When receiving critical feedback, it can be hard to focus on the benefits. It is advisable to take a break to restore balance. After a while, return to the feedback and focus on what steps we can take to make progress.

Sometimes, we compare ourselves with others to gauge how we are doing. However, this is not helpful as we are all different. Comparisons raise self-doubt and reduce confidence. To manage this, it is helpful to remember that we each have different perspectives and experiences.

Practice self-compassion: Being self-aware allows us to acknowledge that we are humans and make mistakes. It helps us to recognise our feelings and that we can choose what we pay attention to.13Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.

We can focus on how unfair the comment is, or on our doubts about our ability. Instead, we can focus on what will help in the moment and channel our energy to improve our work.14Kross, E. (2021) Chatter. The voice in our head an how to harness it. London: Vermillion.

Connect with others: Adopting a proactive approach by seeking advice and support from others to manage challenging feedback. 

At work, we can ask trusted colleagues to be a sounding board so that we can gain perspective as we hear different points of view. When studying, we can ask academic staff for more information or discuss our concerns with peers. Communication boosts connections and wellbeing.

 

Footnotes
  • 1
    Stone, D. & Sheen, S. Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well. New York: Penguin.
  • 2
    ibid
  • 3
    ibid
  • 4
    Harris, R. (2010) The confidence gap. From fear to freedom. London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd.
  • 5
    McGonigal, K. (2015) The upside of stress. Why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it). London: Vermilion.
  • 6
    David, S. (2016) Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life. London: Penguin Books.
  • 7
    Gilbert, P. & Choden, (2013) Mindful compassion. Using the power of mindfulness and compassion to transform our lives. Great Britain: Robinson
  • 8
    Dweck, C. S. (2017) Mindset. Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential. London: Robinson
  • 9
    Fishbach, A. (2022) Forget quit undone. Surprising Sessions from the science of motivation. New York: Little Brown, Spark.
  • 10
    ibid
  • 11
    Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. USA: McGraw-Hill.
  • 12
    Ratey, J. & Hagerman, E. (2010) Spark. How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London: Quercus.
  • 13
    Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.
  • 14
    Kross, E. (2021) Chatter. The voice in our head an how to harness it. London: Vermillion.

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