Why Feedback is a Dirty Word

Recently I was given some feedback which was accurate, helpful and needed, it was a gift. It was delivered with sensitivity, caring and from a position of utmost concern. Whoo hoo you might say, how awesome! The trouble is, that despite this, at the point of hearing it I felt awful. Worse, I felt vulnerable, upset, I felt that I had unintentionally let someone I valued down. I was also mortified that despite my best efforts I had come up wanting. Now I am guessing I am not alone in having such immediate reactions to feedback.

In contrast my daughter spent the last year of her degree constantly seeking feedback on her writing approach, her style, what she could do better, what she might have missed and so on. Her tutors were for her a font of knowledge from which to drink from and to keep drinking. I witnessed this in awe. Why do some people hoover up feedback like its gold dust and others shrink from it as though it is a poisoned chalice?

Carol Dweck describes these two situations as the fixed versus the growth mindset. In her book Mindset (2012)* she describes a fixed mindset as coming from a belief that your intelligence, abilities and qualities are ‘carved in stone’ and this ‘creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over’. In other words being told you are deficient in some way reflects on your confidence baseline suggesting you are less intelligent, able or capable than you thought you were. In contrast with a growth mindset your baseline is your starting point from which you can discover, learn, grow and expand in proportion to the effort you are willing to invest.

Being from the UK 11+ generation of the early 1970’s with a headmaster who used to whack us over the head with his hand, ruler, blackboard duster or whatever came to mind when we got practice questions wrong, I believe nurture has a big hand in my ‘conditioned’ response. Feedback for me is associated with punishment – ‘you got that wrong idiot – THWACK!’  

So effective was this ‘conditioning’,  that my own inner voice can dish out this sort of rebuke without much prompting. W. Timothy Gallwey**, wrote an excellent book around this called ‘the inner game of tennis’, which I recommend to anyone who has this unwelcome inner, loud mouthed, brain squatter.

Now I have read the theory, analysed my response, reflected, ruminated, reframed and NLP’d myself endlessly. What I have found is that, for me, the word feedback has, and retains, negative connotations. Try as I might, I cannot stop my initial gulp, tremor reflex which kicks in about 3 seconds into someone uttering the phrase ‘Can I give you some feedback…’. What I can do is choose how I respond to it, by putting myself into a mindset that is receptive to the feedback. Believe it or not this is possible.

So if Feedback is a dirty word for you, here are my personal tips for getting in the right mindset to receive it …

1. There is a difference between reaction and response. Recognise your reaction, mentally catch it, put it to one side and resolve to listen attentively to what is being said (you can open the wine and cry later). Choose to respond at this point by listening, by all means seek clarification but be careful not to be drawn into defending or ‘biting back’.

2. Treat all feedback as a gift – someone is taking the time to invest in your wellbeing (even if how they deliver the gift is sometimes clunky or harsh). So thank them for it (even if you disagree with what has been said). Thanking someone allows you to mentally reframe the feedback as a gift rather than a punishment. It takes the sting away – honestly, try it out!

3. Feedback is someone else’s perception, it does not label you or diminish you. They are entitled to their view about you as much as they are entitled to support Accrington Stanley or go to a Jedward concert.

4. A common reaction to negative feedback is to then devote all your mental energy to replaying it in your head again, and again, and again and again! Lyubomirsky (2013)*** refers to this as overthinking and suggests that a positive response to this is to distract and absorb yourself in activities you enjoy. I can confirm this works best for me and I do so for as long as I need. This puts space and perspective between what I have heard and how I choose to respond to it. It can sometimes take a few days but I get there.

5. When you feel ready, respond with balance, reflection and calmness.  Take the bits of feedback that are helpful and do something constructive with it. Then discard the rest. I advocate the fast food feedback response which is to treat it like a hamburger – chew it, taste it, swallow or waste it!

6. Finally, learn to ask for feedback rather than wait for it to be delivered. If you have commissioned the feedback it is somehow more acceptable and easier to hear. Also by making seeking feedback a habit, its power to disrupt your confidence diminishes and you genuinely get information that will help you improve. Additional benefits are that you are seen by others as a great role model!

*Dweck, C. S. Dr. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.

**Gallwey, W. T (2010) The Inner Game of Tennis. New York: Random House

***Lyubomirsky, S. (2010). The How of Happiness: A practical guide to getting the life you want. London: Piatkus.