Feedback as a gift?

By Jennifer Vrouvides

Feedback is a strange and ambiguous subject. It often happens in moments where we feel insecure and vulnerable. In my life, feedback has been report cards, annual reviews, personal relationships, and various other evaluations. These uncomfortable, sweaty palm moments tend to happen quickly and without much work being done. We move on until the next round of feedback comes in. However, in reality, feedback is with us constantly. Feedback is a major tool in building your career, your romantic and non-romantic relationships, and your body; it’s a tool you need to learn how to use if you want to grow.

I became interested in feedback’s growth narrative via three main situations: My ex partner saying I was selfish, my work saying I was not performing, and my stomach being in pain everyday. I liked none of these situations because they made me feel poorly and insecure but I knew the feedback carried merit. Despite knowing the value, I felt judged at the time. My reactions were defensive, angry, and in denial -- all of which left me feeling victimized in the end. Looking back now, it’s blatantly obvious that these major pillars- relationship, work, and health- were telling me really important things that I couldn’t hear because I was viewing feedback as inherently negative. I didn’t have the tools I needed to listen. I didn’t even know I needed them.

Discovering these tools and seeing the value in feedback can be a life changer but you need to understand both why you need them and how they’re used. This article will touch on what feedback is and is not, why it’s so hard, and how to give and receive it in a step by step way.

What is Feedback not?

Feedback is not passing judgement on someone nor is it layering implications of what is good or bad, morally right or morally wrong. Feedback is not necessarily a given truth. A person giving feedback might not know what they are talking about - like the drunk person at the bar, the boss who has never seen your work, or someone intentionally trying to hurt you. Here, like in many other aspects of your life, critical thinking is important.

What Feedback is...

Feedback is information. It is a type of communication that takes practice to give and take, in concrete and constructive ways. Communication in itself is an art and a tool that requires practice to be done effectively.  

Regardless of how you feel about feedback, if you want to excel at work, have healthy, meaningful relationships, feel your body is reliable, or whatever else you want to be better in, you have to listen. You have to actively listen to the information. Do you understand what the information is? Not “do you agree with the information?”, but are you actually hearing it? If you don’t understand, ask clarifying questions rephrasing what has been shared with you.

Why it’s so hard to take

Personally, I found taking feedback tough. Especially in past relationships. I’d get defensive really fast (oh, hey there, Ego). In general, “we have to talk” critiques on a design or an article (yikes!) are not the easiest conversations. These are stressful moments that lead us to experience unpleasant feelings like insecurity. During these moments, our need to feel safe and secure feel at risk.
However, the key to change is working to break the “feedback is negative” narrative: Feedback is not inherently negative, just like it is not inherently positive, feedback is feedback, which is information. This is a communicator trying to express a point to you and how you experience and process that information is up to you.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

Many concepts found in this article are based in nonviolent communication (NVC)1 practices and may be familiar to you (if not, I encourage you to look into this!). One part of feedback is communicating, the other is active listening. They work together, whether you are the one giving or receiving feedback. To paint a clearer picture, here is an example of a well-communicated feedback situation:

Boss and employee. This employee has been having a difficult time understanding and delivering on the idea laid out by management. We can assume that the employee is aware they have been coming up a bit short.

It’s probable that both of these people are uncomfortable. As the receiver of feedback (employee), at this time your role is to sit down, lightly bite your tongue that is either ready for excuses or ‘I’m so sorry’, to open your ears, and get ready to listen.

The Giver of feedback will check in with you and see how you are doing. Hopefully there is an existing relationship here built on trust. The Giver will bring up a specific observation about your work based on whether your work has met the needs of the company or not. When doing this, they are thinking about how to best communicate with you, the Receiver, as an individual, they are using clear sentences that are direct and have specific examples. They are not saying, “Your work is coming up short, you need to do better...”, as that is vague and unhelpful. They are saying something more along the lines of “Based on the last design, I feel surprised that it didn’t demonstrate the growth narrative color choices. I need to feel understood and that our goals are understood. I would like to discuss this again and answer questions to be as clear as possible on expectations”. The feedback here is a clear formula: a check-in, a specific and ideally timely observation, needs met or unmet, and a request.

Feedback and your body

My stomach was always hurting. There was constant aching and I couldn’t digest food properly. My unreliable stomach really started to impact my life. I was afraid to go away on trips, I couldn’t work out as much and overall I felt disappointed.  In reality, I hadn’t been listening to what was setting my stomach off. Then I realized I was in good company - people not taking enough time to listen to their bodies is such a common oversight in mental and physical health. In my case, it turned out that my stomach issues were because of two main things: Stress and an increasing intolerance to lactose (facepalm).

Our bodies are incredibly adept at telling us if something is off but despite great communication skills, we block or divert our brain from listening. These diversions are deadlines, exams, appointments, relationships, the list goes on. We simply don’t have time to have a stomach ache, to be sick, or to just rest. But we have to. Listening to your body’s feedback and making appropriate changes is non-negotiable for good health.

So is Feedback a gift?

It turns out that it is! It also turns out that I was not selfish about everything, just like my work was not always coming up short. My stomach did not always hurt, just when I was stressed and ate cheese (and who doesn’t love cheesecake when they’re stressed?!). Regardless of my love for sweet things, this information served as an opportunity for growth and to get stronger. I chose to find the value, to listen, and ask for clarification when needed. When I put my defensiveness aside and looked inwards, I could take the feedback as information, not a judgement, and apply it to my life. Now I feel the benefits all the time, especially in my relationships, though the biggest gain was one I didn’t expect. It was feeling that I could communicate effectively when I was unhappy. In the end, I feel empowered to be who I am and play my chosen role in the world.

Good luck on your journeys and feel free to ask questions!

Ps. Have you heard of yourperiodcalled? It’s an insta page for people with periods to have a giggle, share a laugh, and normalize period talk and the woes it comes with.

Further info on Non- Violent Communication:
1- https://www.cnvc.org/

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