Understanding feedback to become better versions of ourselves

Sanne van Tongelen Agile Coach || Front-end Developer

Sanne van Tongelen is an Agile coach and Front-end developer at Bannerconnect. She introduced a complimenting system to our Product & Engineering building and ever since she’s all about praising and acknowledging her co-workers. And now she’s our helping hand in understanding feedback to become better versions of ourselves.

Within Bannerconnect we are constantly looking for opportunities to improve ourselves and become masters in what we do. If you want to become better at something, one of the most important things is receiving feedback.

This would seem logical and easy, but feedback is a tough subject for most people. The funny thing is, that people tend to think they are better in receiving and giving feedback than others. You often hear people feel offended or that they’re afraid their relationship with the other person will be affected when giving feedback. Issues that are often raised when receiving feedback are that the feedback isn’t right, is unreasonable or that it isn’t given in the right way.

Personally, I like getting feedback, whether it’s positive or negative, as long as I can get better at what I do. Even though sometimes it’s really nice to receive feedback, it can also really get to me. However,  the feedback I learn the most from:  is the feedback that hits me hardest. The reason for this is an internal conflict that happens inside our heads. We want to be accepted by the people surrounding us but we’re also eager to learn and grow. So, it’s only logical we have trouble handling feedback, since in a way it says: “You’re not good as you are right now, you have to change to be accepted”. As this threatens the way we see ourselves, we defend ourselves by rejecting the feedback, which unfortunately means we’re throwing away our learning opportunity.

Luckily there are some things you can do to make sure you do get the most out of feedback. It starts with understanding where feedback comes from, what feedback is, and what makes you reject feedback.

How does feedback come to life?

When you give someone feedback you give feedback on their behavior since that’s the only thing that’s visible: we don’t know what someone’s intentions or feelings are.  A commonly heard response is “That was not my intention.”, where we learn that the behavior we showed didn’t match the result, and this gives us an opportunity to improve.

The following model gives an overview of what feedback is based on:

Feedback model

This image is based on the content in the book “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well” by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone.1

As you can see in the model there are things known by you, things only visible to the other person, and a small part visible to the both of you. Knowing this could help make it easier to receive feedback. Try to compare receiving feedback with a snapshot of yourself: it’s only based on what is visible at that moment and thus changeable.

Want to know what feedback is? Click here to know more

What makes us reject feedback?

According to Douglas Stone and Sheila Sheen2, there are three different ways in which we can be triggered if we reject given feedback.

1.    The truth trigger

Nobody accepts feedback if the feedback isn’t true. When we receive feedback, we categorize it into two categories: right or wrong. If we find something that is wrong in the received feedback, we reject it. However, we don’t realize that there is this part in the feedback that can actually help us.

One of the reasons the truth trigger gets activated is because you’re not able to see yourself. You can’t hear how you speak or see your expressions, therefore you can’t always relate to the things others say.

Another reason is that often the feedback is unclear to us. For instance, if someone says: “You should be more proactive.”, you might have another interpretation of what proactive is. This triggers us to see that as a false statement and therefore reject the feedback.

2.    The relationship trigger

The relationship trigger focuses on who is giving the feedback or the way the feedback is given. You basically don’t trust the source, because of their knowledge, intentions or role. For example, you’ve been working on all tasks that had to be done. Your colleague comes back from holiday and the first thing he/she says is: “Wow, you should pay more attention to the details.” You’ll probably be frustrated because you feel unappreciated or because you don’t like the way the feedback has been given.

3.    The identity trigger

Everyone has a story about who they are. You see yourself as a person with certain qualities. Feedback can threaten the image you have of yourself which will, therefore, make you more likely to reject the feedback. It also could be that the feedback is too overwhelming. These feelings differ per person, and while some people can put this feeling aside quickly, others will take longer to overcome this.

Another thing is that people are aware of the effect feedback has on them. If you have a hard time dealing with receiving feedback, you’re more likely to be more cautious when giving feedback to others. Since there is a difference in how everyone handles feedback, giving feedback the way you like to receive it could lead to misunderstandings.

What can I do to get better at receiving feedback?

If you want to get better at receiving feedback you need to be aware of the feedback triggers. Once you understand what the feedback triggers are, you can try to handle them. To do this you need to understand how each of the three triggers is activated in you. Try to recognize situations in which each trigger is activated and search for patterns. Every trigger has its own challenge:

  • The truth trigger has the challenge to see what we don’t see. Try to understand what the other person means. If the explanation is vague, ask for clarification.
  • The relationship trigger has the challenge of setting the what in feedback apart from the who. Try to focus on the improvement in feedback instead of focusing on the way, time or person giving it.
  • At last, the identity trigger has a challenge that lies in you. Try to understand why your intention isn’t reflected in your behavior.
Get this conversation started

Don’t look at feedback as a label, but see it as a conversation starter. Start the dialogue and ask the other person to explain what they mean, and explain how you see it. By getting the conversation going you are revealing things either you or the other person can’t see, which helps you better understand each other.

Ask for only one thing to improve

If you want to receive feedback don’t ask someone if they could please give you feedback. Instead, ask if they can name one thing that you could do differently to improve on a specific area. This way you acknowledge there is a point of improvement and the other person has a clear view of what you expect of them. This will make it easier for people to be honest and direct in their feedback.

In the end, feedback will always be a sensitive subject. If you want to get better at it, it’s important you are aware of what feedback is, where it comes from, and also that you understand the triggers in feedback. Everyone receives feedback in a different way, which makes it hard to become a master in this area. Therefore, it doesn’t make much sense to teach people how to give feedback. Instead, learn to get better at receiving feedback, so you don’t miss out on learning opportunities and so you can become a better version of yourself.

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