The Art of Constructive Feedback
Updated: Apr 27, 2020
Most people in the field of coaching, mentoring, teaching, are familiar with the “shit sandwich”:
- Tell them what they did right
- Point out the weak spots that they need to work on
- Finish with a strength that they can build on.
In my field of experience, being able to take constructive criticism is considered a great strength, a fundamental key to growth in one’s professional acumen. Simply stated: when we cease to learn, we lose our relevancy in our chosen industry.
However, receiving feedback is a much more challenging exercise than most coaches seem to realize. Receiving constructive criticism can raise the heart-rate, push personal triggers, and touch a part of ourselves that we may not be ready to fully acknowledge. When someone speaks a truth of our innermost being, we may not recognize it at first for what it actually is. We experience it as a knot in our stomach, flushed cheeks, or shortness of breath. Honest feedback can be painful, uncomfortable; it can make us feel a resistance in our bodies, which is quite impalpable. It is when it hits this place of discomfort that we know that it has touched on an inalienable truth. Otherwise, we would have no physical reaction – as truths are held deep within the cells of our bodies.
But it is in this exact place of awareness, honesty and nakedness that we discover the truth of our experience. One of the most difficult aspects in the ‘Receiving’ of feedback is realizing that in every harsh criticism uttered, no matter how coloured with someone else’s bias and/or issues (and this is the part that scathes)- there usually exists, some miniscule grain of truth – that we must seek out and embrace, if growth is our true aim. Receiving constructive feedback successfully, is both a practice in self-awareness and an exercise in humility.
Many times, students are just not ready to hear, and/or are incapable of receiving feedback - symptoms include:
They talk more than they listen or take notes
Respond to comments with: ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’ or ‘I know, but..’
… they hear you talking, they hear the words, but they are not really listening – they are preemptively dismissing them.
In my work, I have often seen this imperviousness to learning (however unconscious) become a fatal flaw – as many leaders and employers alike, understand their limited ability to work, with those who are unwilling to adapt and grow.
But this is in the receiving – It is my contention that the greater responsibility (not necessarily skill) lies in the hands of the individual offering feedback. In the giving, we must allow for the persons’ right to not be in a place to receive the feedback at all.
Receiving constructive criticism takes grace and presence – and if you happen to be having a shitty day – forget about it! I contend that it is the onus of the coach/trainer/mentor to ask with sincerity: “Are you open to receive feedback right now?” …. And then to leave much room for the respondent to say “No!” I’ve had a shitty day, week, hour and I really am not in a place to receive feedback at this moment – can it please wait a day or two?” – this consideration in delivery, is something that I have rarely seen in practice.
I have seen skilled coaches ask: ‘how did you feel about your performance today’ – a thoughtful question, that helps to put the student at ease, and allows the coach an opportunity to establish a baseline, from which to chose the appropriate wording and tone with which to proceed. As it is the great responsibility of the coach/mentor to remember that they are holding the recipients self-esteem in the ‘palm of their hands’ with whatever words they proffer as ‘advice’ – and to remember that the ultimate goal of the exercise is to build an individual up, to help them improve, rather than feed any possible insecurities.
The onus falls heavily on the ‘mentor’, to temper their choice of words with the knowledge that honesty, without compassion, is brutality.
Moreover, it is important for the mentor offering the feedback, to remember that their opinion/advice is not by any means ‘absolute truth’ nor even a statement of fact….
To this end, I like to preface my feedback sessions with students, with a quote from B.K.S. Iyengar:
‘Don’t believe anything you hear. Even if I have said it. Unless, it agrees with your own logic and reason.”
It is important for each of us to understand, that both the giving, and the receiving of constructive feedback, are skills that generally need to be developed over time. As our natural states of being, if gone unchecked – are usually: - subjective, emotional, bias, defensive and reactive (how human of us?!;) In order to negate these natural, more effusive tendencies, we just need to circle back to the ultimate goal of any feedback exercise: to help someone elevate their game, by bringing awareness to any personal ‘blind-spots’.
Giving and receiving constructive feedback is a definitive skill on both sides, that requires very objective navigation through one’s own subjective experience of the present reality.
Practice. Practice. Practice.