As someone who thinks a lot about using intentional communication to help others, I have often thought about the idea of feedback. When I served as a supervisor, I thought long and hard about how to talk with team members about their performance in a way that was helpful. As a Motivational Interviewing (MI) trainer, I have tried many ways of communicating to training participants about their use of MI skills. As an instructor/advisor of graduate students, I frequently experiment with different strategies when helping students identify areas of growth and strengths in their professional development. I have thought a lot about giving feedback, but it was not until recently that I had thought about how I receive feedback. After reading Thanks For the Feedback, I am convinced that intentionally receiving feedback is an important and often overlooked aspect in the feedback process. I think that in regards to the practice of cultural humility, the skill of receiving feedback is even more important than the skill of giving feedback.
Feedback and Cultural Humility
Webster Merriam defines feedback as, “the transmission of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event, or process to the original or controlling source” (Webster Merriam, 2018). When applied to human interactions, we can say that feedback is the act of “communicating-back” to a person about their past behaviors, actions, presentation or other aspect of self-expression. Giving feedback well is important, and accepting feedback is actually a key skill in the practice of cultural humility:
“The intrapersonal aspect of cultural humility captures how therapists are able to view themselves culturally, including their biases, strengths, limitations, areas for growth, beliefs, values, attitudes, and assumptions. In doing so, culturally humble therapists should be open to feedback from others… The ability to incorporate this information in a non defensively, open stance is the hallmark of intrapersonal humility” (Hook, Davis, Owen & DeBlaere, 2017, p. 29).
Luft and Inghum (1955) explain this idea in their concept of the “Jahari Window.” The Jahari Window is a 4 quadrant window that illustrates 4 ways that we know (or don’t know) characteristics or qualities about ourselves. There are 1) things about ourselves that we know and others know (arena), 2) things about ourselves that we know but others do not know (façade), 3) things that neither we nor others know (unknown), and 4) things that others know that we do not (blind spot). It is with the latter window quadrant, the “blind spot,” where feedback is crucial. Usually our biases and assumptions fall into the blind spot part of our window – we are unaware of these subconscious thoughts and behaviors. Our family, friends, strangers, adversaries and others have a unique perspective about our quirks, sensitives, and biases.
Considering another person’s feedback can be a hard task for some of us, it is even harder when someone is giving us feedback about possible biases or prejudices that we may hold! But without feedback from others, our biases may remain hidden to us. Biases can be kind of like that remnant of a salad that is stuck in our teeth, others can see the speck of lettuce but we are oblivious to it. Just as that speck of lettuce is distracting our conversation partner, our biases can distract from the content of what we are saying. And while it may be fairly easy to receive the feedback that there is a speck of lettuce in our teeth, learning to accept the feedback that we have a certain skewed view of others can take practice.
Recently I received feedback during a class that I was teaching. The feedback I received was delivered in the compassionate manner of “calling someone in” (as opposed to the more direct tactic of “calling someone out”) during a class that focused on race and oppression in St. Louis. We were discussing the St. Louis iconic Gateway Arch structure and its association with the westward expansion. I made an impassioned statement to the effect of, “sure the white settlers did get a lot of great land, in the meantime all of the folks who lived here for generations were massacred!” One of my students was quick to point out that while she agreed with my spirit, my statement that “all American Indians were massacred” was inaccurate. In fact, Native populations in the US are often unacknowledged in media, and they are often characterized as a group from the past. In reality there about 562 federally recognized American Indian tribes in the US. The statement I had made in class came across as perpetuating the myth of American Indians as a group that exists only in US history.
Accepting feedback well is an important act of being humble and modeling humility for others. When we accept feedback we are actively demonstrating that we are not perfect all-knowing experts, rather we are learners who want to better understand others and the larger world. It seems to me that by accepting (or at least considering) feedback from another person, we are acknowledging that multiple experiences and perspectives exist. Accepting feedback is a tangible action or skill that can give solidity to the common expression “open minded.” By being open to feedback, my mind is open to others and their experience of this world. Accepting feedback can be a particularly powerful act when we are in the privileged side of a power dynamic, by eliciting and truly accepting feedback from another person we can attempt to address power inequality in the relationship. The view of multiple perspectives and non-supremacy of self, along with the willingness to “try new ideas out” is at the heart of humility.
During a recent class that I taught, I asked the class for any feedback that they had for me as an instructor. One student raised her hand and said, “sometimes I want you to answer questions directly during class, but you tend to direct any of my questions to the full class for feedback. Sometime I just want an answer from you.” This feedback challenged me some. Since the class I teach is a seminar, I always strive to start dialogue and discussion and avoid answering questions. While the student did not take issue with this approach as a whole, she was telling me that there are times when she is actually looking for me to answer questions. After hearing this student and considering what she was meaning, we came up with an agreement that when a questions was asked I would clarify how the student would like the question addressed.
Accepting feedback is not always an easy task. It seems that we often see giving feedback as a skill, but accepting feedback is also a skill and may be the greater challenge. Just as any other skill, it takes intentional practice in order to perfect.
Accepting Feedback Well
Accepting feedback does not usually come naturally to many of us. We usually seek to find and accept ideas that validate our existing self, when we encounter ideas that challenge us we naturally react with defensiveness, arguments or denial in some way. I am sure that the field of evolutionary psychology would have a good explanation for this phenomenon. Fortunately for those of us who want to be more culturally humble and accept feedback better (even that hard feedback), the book “Thanks for the Feedback” has laid the foundation for better understanding and working with feedback from others. The book identifies three primary types of feedback:
Appreciative Feedback focuses on strengths of the person receiving feedback. This type of feedback can express gratitude or appreciation for one’s efforts, skills or behaviors. Our partner may express this type of feedback saying something like, “you are so good at fixing things, I don’t know how I would be able to maintain our house without your repair skills.” Appreciative feedback can be especially helpful when we are feeling underappreciated by others. Sometimes appreciative feedback can be motivating and rewarding to hear, and other times it can seem superficial and hollow.
Coaching Feedback aims to help a person grow, develop, or change in some way. This kind of feedback can focus on helping someone develop a skill or knowledge base: “I noticed that you have been having a hard time communicating with Shane lately, I wonder if it would be OK to share a few strategies that I have used when talking with him?” Alternately, coaching feedback may deal with issues in the relationship between the feedback giver and receiver: “You have not been around much lately, the kids miss you and I am feeling overwhelmed by housework without your help.” Coaching feedback can be some of the most valuable feedback when it comes to developing insight into our behaviors, biases, and areas of growth. This type of feedback can often plant a seed for behavior change or learning, other times it can seem out of place, inaccurate, or unwanted.
Evaluative Feedback compares one’s performance to a set of standards or expectations. Formal evaluative feedback can come in the form a written evaluation of your performance. For example your annual performance evaluation lists “met expectations” regarding attendance, quality of work, professionalism, etc. Less formal evaluative feedback may come in an offhand comment like, “one thing I have noticed after working with you is that you are very intelligent [compared to others that I have worked with in the industry].” Evaluative feedback is often needed for us to feel secure in our roles, this kind of feedback can also be the hardest type to hear.
When we receive any of the above types of feedback, we are likely to have an automatic reaction. The more extreme the reaction, the harder it is for us to hear, understand, or use the feedback information. These reactions can be a problem if our goal is to become a more culturally humble practitioner. An extreme reaction such as defensiveness or arguing can close the door on our learning and even damage our relationship with others. Stone and Heen (2015) explain that there are typically 3 causes (or triggers) for our reactions:
Truth Triggers occur when we perceive that the person giving us feedback does not understand the situation, is not knowledgeable, or in some other way does not know what they are talking about. We think that the content of what the person is saying is incorrect. Recently I was told by a coworker that “maybe you need to work on setting clearer boundaries.” The coworker based this piece of information on one specific situation that they were vaguely familiar with. This caused a truth trigger for me - my reaction was to question if she had enough information to make this assertion. Maybe I should work on setting clearer boundaries, but at the time I did not believe this person had enough information to make that assessment.
Relationship Triggers happen when there is a problem with the relationship. Maybe we do not trust the person giving the feedback, their role is not one that we expect feedback from, or we perceive this person to have poor judgement or skewed perception. I was recently told by a student, “if there is one thing that I can say about you, it’s that you are consistent. Yea, I would definitely hire you, you may be annoying but consistent. I would hire you.” This feedback was complex for a few reasons, but one thing that really struck me was our relationship. I was not expecting for my employability to be assessed by a student, this caused a relationship trigger to go off for me.
Identity Triggers emerge when the feedback given challenges views that we have of ourselves and our identities. When feedback strikes at the very core of who we believe ourselves to be, it can trigger a strong reaction. I was told once by someone I had been supervising that, “you just are not compassionate.” This triggered an identity trigger for me, because compassion is one of my core values and motivators. The fact that my supervisor was in the room for this conversation amplified the potency of this feedback as well.
Putting Knowledge to Practice
Identifying the different types of feedback and understanding some of the triggers that may prevent us from hearing the feedback gives us a foundation for the practice of accepting feedback well. When we receive feedback we can seek to understand the nature of the feedback: What type of feedback was it? What was the intention of the feedback giver? By reflecting on our feedback triggers we can be better prepared for aspects of feedback that may cause reactions and plan accordingly: What are some of my biggest triggers? How do I usually react?
Knowledge about the nature of feedback and triggers is not enough. Like any skill, learning to accept feedback well requires practice. Stone and Heen suggest we begin our practice of this skill by asking directly for one piece of feedback from our friends or family, eventually growing more comfortable asking for feedback from others. An MI trainer may ask “after participating in my training, can you think of one thing I could try to change to make it more effective?” A spouse may ask, “Would you share with me one small thing that I could do that you would really appreciate in a big way?” An employee may ask, “If there was one thing that I could work on learning to help my performance here, what would that be?”
I will be asking some of these questions. Once I receive the feedback, I can slow down, identify what type of feedback it is, notice any triggers, and decide how to respond. I can choose how to respond and embrace the feedback, just “try it on,” or even reject it. The important part is that I am considering what others are saying, and working towards becoming more culturally humble in our interactions with others.
Feedback [Def. 1]. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster Online. In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved July 18, 2018, from http://www.merriam-webster.com.
Hook, J., Davis, D., Owen, J. & DeBlaere, C. (2017). Cultural Humility: Engaging diverse identities in therapy. DC: American Psychological Association.
Luft, J.; Ingham, H. (1955). The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness. Proceedings of the western training laboratory in group development. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles.
Stone, D. & Heen, S. (2015). Thanks for the feedback. NY: Penguin Books.
Jesse Jonesberg (Berg) is a mental health professional, field instructor, trainer, and MINT member. He is passionate about issues of mental health, cultural humility, compassion, and motivational interviewing.
Jesse Jonesberg (Berg) is a member of the MINT network and active member of the MINT IDAC.
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