The Survivor’s Guide to Feedback: How to Keep It Classy

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Feedback is often tough to hear, unwanted, and unhelpful. When you think about it, feedback is coming at you all the time in various forms. It can be a harsh comment, a sideways glance, a grade, or an unexpected performance review. Sometimes, however, we get feedback that could be useful if we are open to hearing it (even when it’s hard). If we are self-aware enough to take a step back, understand our reactions, and work through that initial shock — even if the feedback comes at us like a Mack truck — it may be just what we need to get stronger and get better at school, work, relationships, life, and so on.

In order to make feedback your friend and not your enemy, there are a few things to keep in mind. The following is a quick guide to turning feedback into a glass-half-full situation. Remember that all feedback may not be of equal usefulness, but it is all legitimate in the sense that something is being communicated. You know when the feedback you are getting feels like the last train to crazy town — like when your friend is saying something hurtful because she’s really just jealous. Even in a case like this, feedback — albeit lousy — is given, and you’ve received it. It’s out there and needs to be dealt with in some way.

In the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen discuss the concept of triggers. Triggers are the words or actions that create defensive or emotional responses in everyone. According to Stone and Heen, there are three main triggers when examining feedback: truth, relationship, and identity. The truth trigger elicits a response in the receiver of “That’s wrong!” or, “Ridiculous!” The relationship trigger elicits responses like: “You are the problem buddy, not me!” or, “Who do you think you are?” Finally, with the identity trigger, the receiver’s internal beliefs are threatened: “I am a complete idiot!”

All of these triggers get tripped on social media all the time. Unfortunate tweets and Facebook posts sometimes end up with people losing jobs and friendships. If you think a post is dead wrong (truth) and that the author has become a self-appointed and insensitive expert (relationship), and, worst of all, if it makes you insecure and second-guess yourself and your choices (identity), the only way to keep your cool is to understand and recognize the triggers before responding with more harsh feedback that is very likely to be received poorly.

It’s easy to see how things escalate quickly and spiral out of control, even between educated and well-meaning people. When this happens, little is accomplished other than hurt feelings. What we want is to learn something from feedback, even if it’s just something about our own reactions to feedback. In this way, even hurtful feedback can have some purpose.

Since we can’t avoid feedback of all types, we can instead try to avoid conflict through knowing where that emotional response is coming from. Feel it, and then check yourself before you give your feedback: Is it necessary? Is it truthful? Is it respectful? Keep it classy.

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