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Friend or Foe: How to Give—and Take—Good Feedback

It’s extremely hard to give good feedback. Here, VIlma discusses her personal experience of feedback and how you can learn to give—and receive—feedback constructively.
by Vilma Ala-Tuuhonen | Jan 17 2020

In school, I never cared much about my exam results, other than the overall score penned in red in the upper right corner of my exam sheet. When the teacher returned the exam papers to the class, I remember sitting at my desk with a beating heart, turning over the paper to see my grade. I was either disappointed or delighted. Then I systematically stuffed the paper into the depths of my backpack, deciding I would never look at it again.

My relationship with feedback was avoidant and my formal education never forced me to face my weaknesses. I thought that feedback in the form of exam results existed so that I would feel bad about myself, and my lack of skill and knowledge. My teachers never corrected this belief. That’s why I took the continuous feedback loops at school rather badly and felt judged.

Giving and receiving feedback is a skill

Because my relationship with feedback was stained with judgement and guilt, I was completely incapable of looking over the teacher’s corrections. Even though I loved learning and my grades were great, I completely missed the memo: The purpose of feedback was not to make me feel bad, but to help me learn.

Fast-forward to the beginning of my working career. I knew that I had to re-think my relationship to feedback. As a junior, I was doing a lot of things for the first time and I depended on my team members’ feedback to improve. Also, my ingrained need to become good at what I do pushed me to think about what I was so scared of.

I realised it was my ego being hurt when facing the fact that I wasn’t naturally an expert in any field. Today, I know that not being born with skills or knowledge which one can only acquire through experience, is not a weakness but an essential part of being a human.

Imperfection is inherent and feedback is an invitation to to learn more about ourselves.

Why Feedback is Fundamental to our Growth

Feedback is built-in to the formal education system for the same reason it is a fundamental part of the workplace. It is a possibility for the receiver to see where they are in the learning process. It’s like holding a mirror before oneself and seeing things that were otherwise invisible.

The Johari window by Joseph Luft & Harrington Ingham explains the importance of feedback on a simple matrix. It has two dimensions: things that I know and things that others know. The dimensions create four “windows”.

The Johari window

The Arena is your comfort zone. It’s where you move through the world aligned with yourself and the people around you. It’s where you feel the most comfortable. That’s why the bigger your arena is, the better.

The Facade is a zone you can influence through voluntary self-disclosure. This may result in greater interpersonal intimacy and friendship. Having a small Facade might make your life easier, because you don’t have to hide yourself from anyone.

The Unknown is secret to yourself and others. This zone represents what you yourself or other people don’t know about you. It can be explored, for example, in therapy.

The Blind Spots is the zone that you want to keep as small as possible. It’s an uncomfortable place where people around you know things about you that you yourself are unaware of. Feedback from other people can help you make this zone smaller. There is no other way of reducing your blind spots.

Reducing blind spots enables you to make better informed decisions, be more grounded with yourself and experience less anxiety because you understand better how others perceive you.

Why Do We Have Blinds Spots in the First Place?

Simply, because all humans have selective attention. It makes it possible for us to concentrate fully on the thing we are doing. However, in concentrating on one thing we blur out the rest of the world. Our heightened attention towards a task comes with a high price.

The selective attention test illustrates why it is so important to explore your blind spots:
Concentrating hard on a task forces humans to lose sight of the big picture. The gorilla experiment reveals how focusing on certain aspects leads to others things passing by completely unnoticed.

This phenomenon has evolutionary benefits. When hunters and gatherers were still roaming wild in nature, it was crucial that they noticed the approaching lion in order to fight or flee in time. Our attention developed in a way that disregards things we don’t perceive meaningful to save our lives.

However, the homo sapiens of today are no longer threatened by lions, or at least, not so often. Still we often assume that our individual perception is what everyone else sees as well. This basic assumption can be damaging to our emotional and social life.

There will always be things that we overlook. That’s why we need feedback from other people in order to patch up the gaps and pieces we are missing from the full picture.

How to Give Great Feedback

If I am the feedback provider, there are a couple of things I like to think about before jumping to action.

First off, great constructive feedback is subjective. There is no such thing as objective reality so making it clear that the feedback is your subjective perspective makes it more authentic.

Secondly, great feedback is concrete, naming the behaviour or result without judgement. I try to say “I noticed that the email you sent to the whole company this morning had some errors” rather than “you’re not detail-oriented enough”.

Third, feedback should name the impact of the behaviour to give the receiver some perspective. “Flag your intent,” says Kim Scott, the author or Radical Candor. Explaining why I think this specific feedback needs to be provided helps the receiver to see the bigger picture and understand why it’s important to change this specific behaviour or result next time.

Most importantly, helpful feedback originates from a place of caring. Making sure that the receiver knows that I want to support them instead of making them feel bad is crucial.

If I am the feedback’s receiver, here’s what I try to do.

I stay open and don’t justify myself. Feedback’s purpose is to make me more aware of myself and to help me understand how something I’m doing is affecting other people. Staying open for the possibility that others do certain things better than I is the baseline for my growth.

I thank the feedback giver for their time and effort. I don’t take excellent feedback for granted.

I ask clarifying questions in order to fully understand what I could do better and why. If the feedback that I’m receiving is too abstract, I ask for an example.

Thanks to the lessons I shared in this article, for me personally, it has become easier to face my incomplete self and to welcome feedback as a huge gift.

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