Sometimes I don’t respond well to feedback. I think this is common. It can bring out the worst in me -- a childish pettiness I’m embarrassed not to have better mastered in my personality. It’s possible I’m overstating a bit to add some dramatic highlights: I don’t explode in a rage tantrum. But I sometimes want to.
My failures on this front can be particularly frustrating because I know the importance of feedback for the learning and growth that I’m committed to for myself and my students. When I lock out feedback, I’m trying to protect some component of my ego from confronting its limits and vulnerabilities. Sometimes that works for a while, and I can avoid the pain, confusion, and energy required to discern the validity of feedback I receive. I can avoid the work of improvement. And, when I lock out the feedback, I lock out not only the person offering the feedback, but wonder and curiosity about how I work, play, perform. I lock out curiosity about the truth of myself in the world. In a sense, I lock out the reality principle that I am not in control of how I’m perceived, and I am not complete.
When I hear “you can do better” as “you’re not good enough,” I see myself and others around me through the distorted lens of my own self-doubt.
Three Ways We Block Out Feedback
Interestingly, students who refuse to take my notes -- my eternal calls for students to read slowly or write down their algebra, for example -- will say, “yeah, right, right, yeah.” What they mean is “no, wrong, wrong, no.” I don’t take it personally anymore -- they’ve just gotten into the rhythm of not listening to feedback. They have reasons why their way works for them…reasons immune to evidence to the contrary. Often, they’ve received well-intended feedback in ambiguously passive-aggressive ways or in overwhelming and domineering ways. Attempts to “be better” have led to despair and avoiding their sense of control. Similarly, students will see errors that they’ve made and say, “I have no idea why I chose that answer.” This bafflement at our decisions can lead to an inevitability.
Killing the Messenger
This one comes up a lot on the homefront, and it’s pretty straightforward “I know you are but what am I?” If the authority of the person giving me feedback can be questioned, I can excuse myself for not listening. On the homefront, it sounds like, "I didn’t have TIME to take out the recycling, because I was busy cleaning up YOUR dinner.” In the classroom it sounds like, “No, this teacher NEVER liked me, you can ask my classmates, because they’ve seen it too.”
Inflating the Illusion
This one is counterintuitive, so bear with me. Sometimes my students feel completely stuck, despite feeling a deep desire to do better. It’s not that they’re lazy or undermotivated. It’s more that they're pressing the gas and brake at the same time. Here’s how this peculiar thinking can work... They really want to do better and feel special (often times, they have specific people in mind whom they admire and resent). If they can just focus on details and improve…then anybody can focus on details and improve. So it isn’t that special. When in this mindset, specialness seems not only unobtainable, but to be based on the fact that it is unobtainable. The more stuck we are, the more grand success seems from our allegedly failing perspective. We sacrifice the reality of our own progress for the illusion of what could be.
Three Ways to Grow
I’ve found three points critical in improving my work with feedback, and they loosely correspond to the ways that I tend to block out feedback:
1) noticing how I give and receive feedback with a nonjudgmental openness;
2) noticing the symmetry between how I give feedback to others, how I accept feedback from others, and how I give myself feedback; and
3) the specificity, certainty, and tone with which I give and receive feedback.
Things that are surprising naturally get our attention. They can be interesting. When we make an error, or have a pattern of making errors, our curiosity can be piqued by the natural trial-and-error learning structure of our brains. Because many of us have internalized a message that we need to be perfect, though, we’re hesitant to take the risk of exploration. We’ve talked before about the importance of shifting our vocabulary to shift our perspective. One of my favorite phrases to use with students is “hmm…can we be curious about this together?” Another is, especially if I myself have made an error, “wow, isn’t it interesting what my brain did there?” We need to feel safe to feel curious. One of the most helpful things to notice is how I respond to feedback. If I don’t understand my reaction, that in itself is an opening to shift my perspective.
When I’m critical, severe, and shaming in how I give other people notes -- even if it’s just strangers in my head -- I then expect others to be critical, severe, and shaming with me. Not only does this increase my stress level, but it also reshapes how I speak to myself in really unhelpful ways. When I’m able to have a sense of humor about my mistakes and to give myself feedback in open and kind ways, I find it far easier to give others helpful feedback. And when I’m open, direct, and kind to others, then it’s easier to hear them as open, direct, and kind.
There are, of course, numerous difficult people around me, with their own agendas and perspectives, who may or may not have my interests in mind. This doesn’t mean I can’t take something from their feedback. Some of the people I’ve learned the most from are those I respect the least. If I can keep distinct any truth in feedback from any judgments I have about myself or my teachers, family members, colleagues, or friends, then I can use feedback instead of feeling overwhelmed by it.
Making It Specific
Ok, so how does helpful feedback sound? How do we recognize its integrity over against needless criticism based in some indistinct emotional fog? Sometimes, the intention behind it is in tone and specific word choice. Let’s say I dropped the ball and let someone down. They might say, “what were you thinking?!” Or they might say, “Can you help me understand you?” In the first, the focus is on the past, there’s a plea to establish a difference in status, and a conclusion already built in (I wasn’t thinking, or I wasn’t thinking properly). In the second, the focus is on the present and future, a plea for common understanding, and an invitation to join and trust. A frequent way to address this issue in, say, an email, is sandwiching. We start with something complementary, move to a critique, then finish with something kind.
I think this is rhetorically helpful but incomplete. Another critical difference between helpful and unhelpful feedback is the specificity with which the advice is given. Specific advice is clear and actionable. It’s also typically more grounded in facts and principles than in broad judgments and preferences. If I say, “that movie sucks,” I’m not being particularly clever, interesting, or helpful. Even if the movie sucks, I can learn a bit about what I think a sucky movie is by being specific: “The concept seemed solid, but it bit off too much and got lost in the second act. It was visually unexciting, and the lead overacted.” But it needn’t be deeply thoughtful. I can instead say “the movie wasn’t for me, and I’m not quite sure why. Something about the plot? I got bored halfway through.” Even just adding the word “sometimes” can shift the emotional tone and, critically, the accuracy of feedback. “You don’t show your work” versus “Sometimes, you don’t show your work.”
I’m trying to get better at accepting feedback. Let me know if you’ve got notes for me.