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Treat Receiving Feedback as a Skill

"Feedback can make us bitter or better" - Robin Sharma

I often hear feedback that elicits a negative response called "constructive feedback". That's a hopeful name. We hope that we'll be constructive with this feedback and not just be negative about it. But even the most well trained feedback receiver still feels that initial burst of negative feelings. It's ok. It's not self hate. I mean it could be for some, but often it's a smaller negative feeling. Maybe you feel that you let someone down, maybe you're hearing that a known strength is letting you down, or maybe it's something you thought you overcame. In her 2015 TedTalk, Sheila Heen recommends treating feedback as a skill, and the majority of this article ties back to her core beliefs on the topic. Treating feedback as a skill allows you to be less dependent on the giver of the feedback and puts the onus of transitioning from "negative" to "constructive" then "constructive" to "actionable" on you, the listener.

I do personally subscribe to more of Marcus Buckingham's focus on strengths over weaknesses, but most of the time the feedback you're looking to transition from "negative" to "construtive" is calling out your weaknesses, blind spots and egregious growth opportunities. As such, you need to have tools in your toolbox to understand how to properly receive and manage feedback. Shelia indicates that feedback lives at the junction between needing to learn and grow, and needing to be accepted and respected for who you are. Feedback is your relationship with the world around you, so it can be very personal. I believe the quicker you can go from that negative feeling to a constructive feeling, the quicker you can go from a constructive feeling to actionable results. And actionable results are the end goal of treating feedback as a skill.

The concept of treating feedback as a skill starts with understanding your emotional profile. Understanding how you're predisposed to handling the feedback. It starts with your BASELINE. This is your resting happiness level. Without any outside forces acting upon you, where does your happiness level reside. Next is the SWING. This is the amount you tend to or have the ability to deviate from your BASELINE happiness when an outside force, such as feedback, acts upon you. The last part of your emotional profile is your RECOVERY. This is the amount of time it takes you to return, when a force such as feedback, has swung you from your BASELINE. The importance of learning, knowing and understanding your emotional profile cannot be understated. It's the foundation for making the receiving of feedback a skill. You need to know you, and your sensitivity response to life before you can move on from transitioning "negative" to "constructive" to "actionable". To help identify your BASELINE, SWING and RECOVERY you could go it alone and come up with some answers, but I would recommend talking with those very close to you. Yes, I'm recommending soliciting feedback to help prepare you to solicit feedback. You probably have someone in your life, maybe that friend with plenty of opinions, who is not afraid to share how they've witnessed first hand your BASELINE, SWING and RECOVERY. You're looking to understand where you actually are, not where you would like to be. That's a different article.

Once you believe you have a grip on your emotional profile, it's important to know and look for the three key "reaction triggers" when receiving feedback. Reaction triggers are the ways we consciously or subconsciously seek out ways to categorize the feedback as wrong, invalid and thus not worth our time and concideration. Reaction trigger are very harmful when looking to treat feedback as a skill, because it moves what may be perceived as "negative feedback" to the realm of "invalid feedback", and therefore can never move to constructive or actionable. Here's a look at REACTION TRIGGERS:

  1. Truth Triggers - This is your struggle to see yourself in the light being shed. You may find the feedback wrong, unfair or unhelpful. You may search the feedback to find that you "know" 5% of it is untrue, so it's probably all untrue. This is your quest to write off the feedback as false.

  2. Relationship Triggers - This the way you react to feedback based on your relationship with the giver, and not on the feedback itself. For example if you're told "I love this new look on you" by your hair dresser, versus your best friend, your mom or your sibling, you're probably going to respond differently. That's a relationship trigger. Your quest here should be to separate WHO is saying it from WHAT they're saying.

  3. Identity Triggers - This is your reaction to feedback that questions the core of how you see yourself. It's also the result of underappreciating the enormous variance in your emotional profile and your emotional reaction to feedback. We're not robots. Feedback can sting!

There's one key cautionary tale that goes along with knowing your emotional profile and reaction triggers, and that’s FEEDBACK DISTORTION. FEEDBACK DISTORTION occurs when you SWING to the negative side of your BASELINE when receiving the feedback. You become more likely to have a magnified or distorted assessment of the feedback. Here's a great example. Imagine your friend came up to you and said, "I have some really, really, really honest feedback you may not like". At this point your heart rate has sped up, you've probably swung to the negative side of your baseline, and now you're just waiting for the bomb to drop. Another example of this is when someone is layering on the "negative feedback". The first couple comments already dropped you below your baseline, so the rest is insult to injury and you're not giving yourself the opportunity to seek out the growth opportunities in what is being said. In my experience FEEDBACK DISTORTION is harder to identify in the moment. I see it more when I'm being self reflective after receiving the feedback.

Of course you don't have to do any of this. You could just wait around for an expert feedback giver to walk up to you with that golden nugget of life changing feedback. Good luck with that. For the rest of you, take time to learn your emotional profile, keep an eye out for identity triggers, and move forward with your quest of treating the receiving of feedback as a skill. With that,

I ask two things of you this week:

  1. Take some time to really dig into, and understand your emotional profile. This may hurt and set off some reaction triggers in the process, but you'll never be able to master the skill of receiving feedback without understanding your emotional BASELINE, SWING and RECOVERY.

  2. Practice, practice, practice! Ask a manager, or someone you respect a question such as "What's one thing you see me doing - or failing to do - that is getting in my way?" Have your emotional profile and reaction triggers on your mind and try to extract constructive feedback. Follow up with "How do you feel I should approach this". This will give you some ideas on how to go from "constructive" to "actionable". Then, do it again with someone else.

The more you practice, the better you're going to get. I've never gotten to the point where I'm on a quest to receive constructive feedback, but I know many people skilled in turning construtive feedback into actionable results who do seek it out. But that's the beauty of this skills. It works for those types of people, and for those like myself that passively collect and learn from feedback as it rolls in. No matter what type of person you are, the key to going from "negative" feedback to "construtive" feedback, and then "constructive" feedback to actionable results is YOUR choice on how YOU receive and respond to the feedback.

Note: All of the opinions expressed in this article are my own, and are not a reflection of the viewpoint of my employer.

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