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Giving and Receiving Feedback

​In the minds of many students and employees alike, the word “feedback” is synonymous with criticism. Sometimes it conjures memories of getting told by a professor or supervisor that you’re not good enough, of getting blamed for something that wasn’t your doing, or of a time when you received feedback that wasn’t constructive and may have even felt very personal. Whether it’s confronting your weaknesses or a manifestation of interpersonal conflict, and whether you’re on the receiving or giving end of it, feedback can be unnerving. Make no mistake: as aspiring professionals, feedback is a crucial part of our development. It can be an extremely invaluable asset in growing in our careers and as people. The key is to have the right attitudes and goals when reacting to it.

Receiving Feedback

It’s easy to feel attacked as the recipient of feedback. After all, not all feedback may be given in the most appropriate manner or with the best intentions. However, all feedback offers a growth opportunity and a chance to learn some lesson, even if it’s not the lesson the giver intended. Here are some things to try and keep in mind when it comes to receiving feedback.

Recognize feedback when it comes unknowingly

Sometimes, feedback comes without you asking for it. Many people who are further along the path you are traveling than you are may offer it formally or informally. They may dictate quick adjustments to a task you just performed or offer praise on something that you’ve done well. Other times, your supervisor may have a quick discussion with you at the end of a work day as a matter of habit and offer their thoughts about how you’ve done. These comments can be quick. If you’re not paying enough attention, you might not incorporate them fully into your subsequent work. It’s a good idea to keep a small notebook around in case these small opportunities for learning present themselves.

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Ask for feedback

“You don’t know what you don’t know” is a common phrase in education and career development. If you’re never told about something you’re doing wrong, you may never recognize that it needs to be corrected; likewise, if you’re doing something particularly well, you may not realize that yourself until someone with more experience working with a broad range of people points it out.

For someone who doesn’t offer feedback without solicitation, asking the questions “what have I been doing well?” and “what can I do better?” may provide a good starting point. Additionally, some individuals (especially in a healthcare setting) appreciate being told one or two things you specifically want to improve on when you first start working with them. This allows them to focus their attention on this area and generate more specific, actionable feedback. This requires some introspection and incorporation of past feedback in order to identify these weaknesses, and demonstrates initiative.

It’s particularly important to do this in certain settings. On rotations or internships, where you work with someone directly, feedback is frequently offered without solicitation. However, in the case of things like applications and interviews, feedback is rarely if ever offered on its own. Sometimes it is specifically discouraged for application reviewers and interviewers to offer you feedback. Therefore, some initiative is required to obtain feedback indirectly before going into the real thing. A trusted mentor or career advisor may offer feedback on the elements of your resume and application before it is sent. Likewise, mock interviews (again with willing mentors or advisors) can be a good source of interview feedback.

Asking for feedback is beneficial for a few reasons. First, it benefits you by providing a chance to open up an honest discussion about things you do well and things you can improve. Those who ask for feedback make the job of the giver easier if something has been on his/her mind, but they haven’t found the way to express it. Second, it means that you’re invested in bettering yourself and are taking an interest in the job at hand. This can be helpful in gaining the respect of others in your working environment. For those who are more introverted, this may help bridge some communication difficulties by showing that you’re listening and making an effort regardless of the amount of talking you do. Third, by following through, you can demonstrate dependability and earn trust. This is a good lead point for the next discussion:

Take feedback to heart and apply it; avoid becoming defensive

If someone has given you feedback, the next step is to apply it. Sometimes we receive feedback that is given without all the facts, that we disagree with, or which may seem unfair. However, that doesn’t mean it’s useless or that we should ignore it. After a first reaction, some honest introspection may reveal that the giver of this feedback had a point after all; again, we really don’t know what we don’t know. Even if the feedback was given erroneously or without a full understanding, it can still be used as a motivator to improve your performance. It may highlight communication errors on your part that could in themselves use some attention.

It’s very tempting to try to rationalize if we make a mistake and then are confronted with it. We may think that those working with us will think less poorly of us if they understood why we did what we did. Regardless of how understandable our thought process might have been, it’s important to remember that what’s more important is getting it right the next time.

In the majority of cases, simply acknowledging the error and affirming that it will be corrected goes much farther in earning trust and respect than explaining what led to it (unless an explanation is requested, of course). Getting defensive when receiving constructive feedback, turning the criticism back on the giver, or denying the problem are common pitfalls. These often lead the giver to perceive someone as refusing to own up to their mistakes or shortcomings. This is usually a much bigger red flag than making a mistake in the first place.

Thank the giver for the feedback

This may be easy to forget, but if someone has given you good constructive feedback that highlights your strengths and helps identify things to improve, thanking them for taking the time to do so acknowledges that they cared enough to help you grow and learn. And even if you felt the feedback was undeserved (see above), thanking them sends the same message. It will also encourage this person to give feedback in the future because they know you will be receptive; this will help you better yourself even further.

Giving Feedback

Being the recipient of feedback is frequently thought of as the most difficult part. However, it can be surprisingly challenging to reverse the roles and become the giver, particularly regarding constructive criticism. It becomes a balancing act between trying to tell someone things they need to hear to become better, and (if you’re nice enough to care about this) avoiding unnecessary hurt feelings with the delivery. There are some important considerations when giving feedback:

Remember why you’re giving feedback and be constructive

The motivation for giving feedback can make a difference in its utility to the recipient; likewise, the actual content of the feedback is important in helping the recipient grow. Good feedback is specific, actionable, often goal-oriented, and is related to the arena in which you have observed the individual. If you’re motivated by a desire to help the person develop and to reach their potential, you’re more likely to take some time to be thoughtful while considering feedback. This will yield higher quality action items that the person can use to improve.

If you’re not careful, though, you may fall into the trap of letting things like your mood in the moment or your personal level of affinity for the individual affect the feedback. Careful consideration should be taken to determine if critical feedback stems more from your personal preference and biases than from any actual disruption caused. We naturally gravitate towards certain individuals and away from others because of personality fits and other unconscious processes. However, this doesn’t mean that those we don’t vibe with as strongly deserve criticism for this fact alone.

Schedule a time to have a discussion

Scheduling provides a few advantages. Setting a time allows you to control your schedule and maximize the feedback session. Interruptions or other stressors can throw things off when feedback is given on the fly, although feedback of this nature is sometimes needed depending on the situation. It also allows you to think more coherently about the feedback to be delivered. This lets you provide specific examples from the individual’s performance to illustrate the point being made. It also allows you to formulate how you want to express your thoughts. If scheduled well, it allows for more time on average to have the discussion. More time means more opportunities for the recipient to ask clarifying questions if needed. It affords the chance to have discussions about action plans to incorporate feedback into performance as well.

Don’t forget about compliments

Feedback is often about correcting mistakes or problematic behaviors, but compliments shouldn’t be overlooked. Noticing what the individual does well shows that you are paying attention to all aspects of their performance. It additionally builds their trust in the idea that you can see their strengths and weaknesses alike instead of focusing solely on the negative. This can influence how receptive they will be to future feedback. Because we often don’t have insight into how we’re doing, we may also be genuinely unaware of how well we do particular things in the same way that we’re unaware of weaknesses. It can be a morale boost to hear a compliment. This is especially important when the work is hard and there is a likelihood of feeling incompetent, unappreciated, or even hopeless and disliked at some point in the process.

Final Word

Although giving and receiving feedback is difficult, learning to navigate the process is necessary for success. There may be situations where these general principles need to be modified, so flexibility is an important virtue in this discussion as well. However, my experience has been that an attitude of openness with an eye to improve and to help others is always a great place to start when approaching feedback.

What other thoughts do you have about how to best give and receive feedback? Please comment below.

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