Learning

by Melanie Greene

Learning from feedback

I know feedback is an essential part of learning, but I hate receiving it, how can I make sure the process is helpful?

Feedback can either come from others or from Coaching Yourself. It’s essential to receive feedback from others if we are to know how we are progressing. Unfortunately, very few of us find it easy to take on board feedback from others – even when it is positive.

For one thing, we are often not used to getting feedback and therefore it can be an uncomfortable process, rather than a routine learning process. It can remind us of ‘getting into trouble’ as a child. Because of this, feedback often arouses the fight-or-flight response, in which case we need to get over that reaction before we can start to listen and take comments on board.

However, there are ways of overcoming this problem and making the process easier. This page contains information on how to ask for constructive feedback and how to overcome the natural blocks that can occur when we receive it.

Asking for and using constructive feedback

We all need feedback when we are learning so that we can find out if we are on the right track. Good feedback is constructive and encouraging, while feedback that is poorly given can undermine your confidence or not give you enough information to help you to change. Therefore it is important that you ask for and receive constructive feedback.

Learning from your own experiences

Think back to a time when you have received some feedback (either inside or outside work). Think about a particular time when you received feedback that was constructive and useful and then write down why it was helpful.

Now go through the same process, but this time recall and analyse a time when you received destructive feedback.

Exercise

Now think about feedback that you have recently received. Was it constructive?

What could you have done to make sure that it was more constructive?

  • Did you ask the best person to give you the feedback?
  • Were you specific about what you wanted the feedback to be about and for what purpose you wanted it?
  • How well did you respond?

Two types of feedback

People often think that all feedback is about giving or receiving criticism – constructive or not. However, if we are to learn from the feedback we receive, it needs to be different from criticism: it needs to provide information that helps us either to change or to keep on doing what is working.

  • Good (constructive) feedback either reinforces effective behaviour or informs the learner about ways to change what they do in order to improve their performance.
  • Feedback is given to help the learner (not to display insight or critical preference on the part of the giver).
  • Constructive feedback focuses on a person’s behaviour (which they can do something about – in other words, repeat or change) and not about their personality.

There are two types of constructive feedback:

  • Change feedback, where the focus is on what you could change or do differently in future
  • Reinforcing feedback, where the focus is on behaviours you could repeat.

Unfortunately, it is common for people to say the following things:

  • I only ever hear when I’ve done something wrong, so if my manager asks to speak to me I fear the worst
  • In the absence of reinforcing feedback I start to doubt myself; I’m not able to judge whether I am doing enough or doing it to the desired standard
  • It is demoralising when my manager only picks up on mistakes and ignores the 99 per cent of times when things go well.

If you notice that you predominantly only receive one sort of feedback – the negative sort – ask for a balance of change and reinforcing feedback.

Asking for feedback

  • What might stop you from asking for feedback?
  • What can you do to overcome this?

Common barriers to listening to and using feedback

We are all human and even if we ask for feedback it does not mean that we will suddenly become like robots and accept what is said without an emotional reaction. We are likely to experience any of the following – though this might vary according to the situation, the person giving the feedback and how good they are at giving it:

Feeling threatened

If feedback is not given in a constructive manner, it can often be seen as criticism and can be quite threatening. In fact, even if feedback is given in a constructive way, we can still experience the fight-or-flight reaction and feel threatened.

What to do to counter this: we are still basically animals and therefore have an inbuilt fight-or-flight response, but as humans we can do things to counteract this. Taking a deep breath, mentally stepping back and reflecting on the situation, even asking for a short break, can enable you to calm down the natural adrenaline rush and start to listen to and explore the feedback you are receiving

Lacking respect

If you do not respect the person who is giving you feedback, you may switch off from what they are saying. However, they might actually have some valid points, particularly if they are quite different to you and can therefore provide a different perspective on the situation.

What to do to counter this: ask yourself if they might have a point; maybe they have a different point of view, one that can be valuable to you. Engage your more rational Adult self (see the Transactional Analysis topic for more information on this) to assist you in looking logically at the situation. Perhaps ask someone you do respect (but who won’t necessarily collude with you) for their opinion on the feedback and your behaviour or performance.

Feeling foolish

All too often, we recognise the truth of what is being said, but waste our energies and our thoughts on feeling foolish, embarrassed and/or guilty instead of finding out exactly what happened and what we could do about it.

For some people, this can be taken to extremes and is related to their inner critic. The inner critic is that voice inside many of us that tells us ‘You’re not good enough’, ‘You’re lazy, hopeless’ and so on, or ‘You’ll never be a success.’ When we make mistakes, this acts as fuel to the inner critic and we beat ourselves up even more.

What to do to counter this: the Coaching Yourself topic has ideas and techniques to help you to counter your inner critic, including how to realistically and constructively debrief yourself. If you use these, you will be able to go beyond feeling foolish and learn from the feedback.

It was a ‘one-off’

We hear feedback on something that went wrong, but immediately regard it as an exceptional situation. We rationalise, justify and respond with ‘It won’t happen again.’ Therefore, we think we don’t need to analyse why whatever it was happened or do anything about it. However, even if it was a one off, it is useful to learn from the situation to make sure it never happens again.

What to do to counter this: ask questions and discuss with the person giving the feedback how you can avoid it happening again in the future. Also, perhaps compare it to times when things have gone well: what made the difference that led to a less-than-satisfactory performance or outcome this time?

Hitting back

On hearing negative feedback, we often hit back and attack the other person. We can end up pointing out that the other person is not a paragon of virtue and has their own faults and weaknesses.

What to do to counter this: this can be related to the fight-or-flight response or our inner critic, or it may happen because we do not respect the person. Therefore, it will assist you if you use some of the techniques explained above to calm down your initial reaction and engage your ‘Adult’ self.

All of these barriers lead you to not listen to and/or ignore the feedback you are receiving, even if you have asked for it. So if you are serious about your learning and development, it is important to find ways of overcoming your own blocks so that you can make the most of any feedback given.

Exercise

What might be your barriers to listening to and using feedback?

How do you usually respond to the feedback you get?

Could you do more to either ask for feedback or respond to it and use it in a more constructive way?

Asking for constructive feedback

There is more information in the Feedback topic, but you might like to bear the following points in mind when asking for constructive feedback to help your learning:

  1. Ask someone who
  • Is likely to be able to give you clear evidence-based feedback
  • You respect and trust to tell you the truth in a constructive way.
  1. Be clear about what you want feedback on: the more specific you are, the easier it is for someone to give useful feedback.
  • Do you want feedback on what you are doing well (reinforcing feedback), as well as what you might need to change (change feedback)?
  • Tell them specifically what you want feedback on, for example:
  • I want feedback on how I handle challenging and disruptive people in meeting situations
  • After the presentation can you give me feedback on how I engage with the audience – do I include everyone or do I spend too much time with one person?
  • With this report, I want feedback on whether I have been too verbose – have I used too much jargon; is there something I need to do to make it easier to read?
  1. Ask for specific examples so that you can clearly understand what you need to change.
  2. Ask the person to limit feedback to what you have asked for, so that they don’t overwhelm you.
  3. Ask questions during the discussion so that you can clarify what is being said and decide how you can use the feedback to either maintain or enhance performance.

Can I learn from successes?

Yes; in fact, if you want to repeat successes or keep on improving your performance, it is important to learn from your success. Sometimes we bask in the glory and forget to reflect on how it came about.

It is the same when it comes to learning from less-than-successful outcomes. We can spend time beating ourselves up, feeling ashamed, guilty, stupid or running away from the situation and we don’t actually learn how to avoid the same thing happening in the future.