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How to give and take feedback

Criticism can be excruciating to receive, and tricky to give well but, without it, we will never grow professionally. Suzy Bashford explains

by Psychologies

A colleague once called me judgemental. It was only a throwaway comment, but it stung. I winced, lost my concentration, and was unable to focus on anything other than that word for the rest of the conversation.

As soon as I could, I fled to the toilets and cried. I had always prided myself on being liberal and open-minded, so the criticism really threw me off balance. Once I had composed myself – and reapplied my make-up – I felt anger welling up inside me: towards my colleague, yes, but I was also cross with myself for reacting so emotionally and unprofessionally to that remark.

My reaction to challenging criticism was typical, says psychologist, Tara Brach, author of Radical Acceptance (Ebury, £14.99). I was displaying the classic primal response to stress: first I froze, then I took flight, then I wanted to fight. It’s also instinctive, when we feel judged or threatened, to cope with it by turning the critic into an ‘unreal other’ from whom we disconnect.

‘You lose all sense of that person being like you – human, with insecurities, and a heart that wants to love,’ says Brach. ‘You get cut off from all that while feeling stressed and judged by them.’

It’s part of the human condition to think ‘I am not good enough’ – and criticism can trigger our insecurities. In a situation such as mine, Brach suggests that the best thing to do is to pause, in order to break the ‘chain of reactivity’. Take three long breaths, she advises, and ‘send a message of kindness inwardly’.

The incident got me thinking – how can we get to a place where we are not afraid of criticism, and can take it on board in a way that is constructive? One of the reasons that most of us are not very good at accepting – or giving – feedback is that we have not had much practice. An annual review at work is all most of us is used to, and it is not part of polite British culture to tell someone, honestly and helpfully, what we think of them. To practise, I set up a useful exercise.

The feedback forum

Pick eight to 10 people who have your best interests at heart. Include friends and family in this group for comparisons of how you are perceived by others in different contexts. Then, appoint a trustworthy, level-headed friend as the ‘feedback facilitator’, who will collate and deliver comments with sensitivity and objectivity.

Identify and discuss the areas that you want to work on. In my group, we agreed on four questions addressing my – sometimes brutally honest – style of communication. Task the facilitator with emailing everyone in the forum, stressing your real desire for honesty in order to improve and progress.

Afterwards – the ‘providing feedback’ process took us two hours – meet up with the facilitator to go through the comments. Be prepared to feel uneasy while listening to people’s opinions of you, but try to focus on listening, and sitting with your discomfort, rather than jumping in with explanations and excuses.

The bigger picture

Remember, not all feedback will be useful and it is other people’s assessment of your behaviour or personality, rather than undeniable ‘truth’ – it is up to you whether you wish to act on their feedback or not.

The exercise was a useful and soulbaring experience. While comments were mostly overwhelmingly positive, and humbling, my mind was drawn to the negative, which is why it’s so important you have the support of a trusted friend to facilitate the process.

My confidante, career coach, Judith Thurlow, continually called me out on my negative bias, and helped me gain a ‘greater’ perspective – spotting themes rather than obsessing about small, peripheral details. ‘Being able to accept a compliment takes a huge amount of confidence,’ she says. ‘We naturally put ourselves down, so it [praise] feels weird, and we don’t know how to deal with it. Try and slow down, listen and just say “thank you”. See it for what it is – useful information – and think, ‘I need to do more of that in future.’”

I’d be lying if I said that some of the words that came up in my feedback session don’t plague me. They do. ‘Intolerant’, ‘rash’ and ‘arrogant’ join ‘judgemental’ in the wincing stakes.

Knowledge is power

I’m consoled by the advice of Elva Ainsworth, author of 360° Feedback: A Transformational Approach (Panoma Press, £15.99) who reassures us that ‘everyone has blind spots’ but ‘your development and future is served if you can understand how you are seen’.

I’ve found this to be true already. I’ve had time to sit with these words a while,and they are hugely helpful guides. I’ve even put them on a canvas ‘wordle’ [a visual ‘word cloud’ made up of meaningful words] along with my core strengths, such as ‘warmth’ and ‘honesty’ – which hangs on my office wall. They are a constant reminder that I, like everyone else, have within me the potential for greatness, but also mediocrity and even malice, and they help me strive for the former. They will never make comfortable reading, but perhaps that’s the point.

As coach and consultant, Elaine Grix, says: ‘Most people live most of their life in their comfort zone. But that’s not how you grow. Embracing feedback takes courage to face uncomfortable emotions – but you can use these words; you can learn from them. Get people to call you out on the areas in which you fall short, but don’t fixate on them. Concentrate on your strengths. Deliberately incorporate them into everyday life. If you dial up your natural strengths, that are at the heart of you, that is how you fly.’

To create a word cloud, visit wordle.net

Review your checklist

  • Be sure you are giving feedback because you want the other person to grow, not because you have an axe to grind
  • If you feel awkward, be honest
  • Be gentle
  • Ask for feedback, too, so it becomes a dialogue
  • Balance negative comments with more positive ones
  • Be mindful that people with lower self-esteem find challenging feedback harder to handle
  • Think, ‘How can I help this person be the best they can be?’

Photograph: iStock