Kemê Pellicer: On Critical Feedback - Deal with it (part 1/2)
A culture in which critical feedback is appreciated and well-taken is the breeding ground to align our actions with our values because it increases our cross-cultural knowledge and improves our inclusive practices.
When we take the courage to engage in its practice with curiosity and humility, we invest in generating the deep trust and accountability essential for effective change. Without feedback, our personal and professional growth would be more strenuous. We need feedback to gain insight into how our actions and behaviour impact those around us. From this perspective, it serves us to ensure not bring into social movement spaces the same sort of behaviours that we would not want to continue.
Working as a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) specialist and consultant, here in Finland and in the Nordic countries, I have developed some “rituals” when starting with new organisations and projects. I see them as steps toward building a space of trust and learning. Most of all, I have incorporated the need for understanding, which I find essential, regardless of the length of our collaboration. One of those early steps is about establishing ways of receiving and giving feedback. What kind of feedback do we need and why do we think we need it? In what format should the message be communicated to be best understood and heard? What level of importance does it carry?
Delivering and receiving constructive feedback is an art and science that I would like to put more attention on. In the past, I used to find delivering and sometimes receiving feedback very stressful. I have stopped myself from giving full feedback in several situations, which reasons from fear of losing my job (which was the only source of income for my family for a long time) to my fear of hurting somebody’s feelings or being misunderstood. However, dealing with feedback has been so critical to my experience that I shifted from eluding it to valuing it as an opportunity for self-growth and a way to deepen relationships. I believe that when someone offers me their honest and constructive remarks, they are actually investing in me and my development, even if it could also very well be just as difficult for them as it was and sometimes is for me.
If feedback is so good for us, why is it so difficult to manage?
The most common answer amongst psychologists and researchers is tied to our negativity bias, and our brains are hardwired to react to negative stimuli faster. They also point out our difficulty to distinguish between criticism and feedback (1), which starts in our childhood and is linked with feelings of discomfort, fear and exclusion. Essentially, the trickiest part to fight is that feedback is based on perception. Ultimately, we tend to resist critical feedback because a good portion of our self-image is based on how others view us, and how we handle it is affected by our personal experiences.
The messages we absorb from our environment such as "Don't make trouble" or "Finish what you started", etc. have different ramifications and perhaps have developed into self-limiting beliefs (2). These messages also change and evolve depending on the context of the situation and where we are in our personal growth. For example, one’s need for others to approve of our behaviour can be equated to the perception that all criticism is taken personally. Another example is the avoidance to take risks and decisions so as to not to be criticized or make a mistake.
Our capacity to deal with feedback is connected with the health of our self-esteem, in other words, our sense of self-worth (source available only in PDF-format). It has to do with our relationship with ourselves more than with others. There are many types of feedback and classifications.
In this article, I am referring to the one usually called "critical feedback", which, in a nutshell, will always entitle unfavourable criticism. There are about three types (3) of critical feedback we might encounter, however, I am interested only in one of them: Valid critical feedback, whenever it is constructively aimed.
SUGGESTIONS WHEN SEEKING FEEDBACK:
Asking for feedback requires self-awareness and humility, which are crucial traits when creating safer and more inclusive spaces. When asking for formal or informal feedback, we should make sure we are open to receiving it.
Ask what needs to be fixed so that you are able to make effective changes. It can be as simple as asking your peers what their thoughts are and setting up a specific time to meet and discuss. I recommend having periodical meetings. (e.g.) Friday’ mornings.
Talk with people with different perspectives because “We can not see what we can not see”. People with different backgrounds and identities are needed to share the aim of growth and dismantling systems of oppression. By cultivating genuine relations with others, we expand our perception awareness and grow a highly nutritious space to practice critical feedback.
Keep in mind when feedback is collected. Ordinarily, for example, feedback forms are sent after we have carried out an event or project. Meaning that the replies will come when we are most likely already working in a new one, leaving us with limited time and resources to process it. Think if, in addition to those forms, there are ways for you to get and process feedback while the work is still in progress and can be affected by it.
Ensure you have appropriate means of communication, both internally and externally, for receiving spontaneous feedback. Communication platforms such as email and forms should be easy to use and understand by everyone. It would be good to have the option of remaining anonymous if the feedback giver prefers. That can sound a bit scary with so many “trolls” around. But it might be the only way some people can give it.
SUGGESTIONS WHEN DEALING WITH CRITICAL FEEDBACK:
- When possible, prepare yourself for it. You can do a little meditation, visualisation, repeat a mantra, breath exercises, anything that grounds you and makes you feel calm and positive.
- Keep in mind: Neither your self-worth is at stake, nor are you under attack.
- Do Active listening: We often listen with a filter for defending, rebutting, critiquing, offering counterexamples, or fixing. Instead, listen actively to understand.
- Ask follow-up questions to clarify and better understand what the person is trying to communicate. (e.g.) “Would you be willing to share some examples to help me better understand?”¨
- Take notes to help you remember important details later that might be blurred by the heat of the moment. (e.g.) references.
- Even if you disagree that your behaviour was problematic, ask yourself, “If this were true, what would it mean?” Reflect on the possible harm and amends. Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Is there any lesson or possibility there?
- Practice discomfort. When we feel anxious to reply to critical feedback, it is often motivated by the urgency of persuading others that we are not at fault, proving that we are one of the “good ones”. It is good to wait until we are motivated more by curiosity than by a need to convince.
- Give it a bit of time. Distance will allow you to better analyse and digest the observations given to you, and the other person can recover from emotional labour. After that, you will be more fit to have a meaningful conversation. If the other person or environment is pressing you for an immediate reaction, you can always reply politely, asking for more time to process it correctly. Fix then together a convenient time to check back.
- How feedback was communicated is not relevant now. By engaging ourselves in criticising how the feedback was communicated (language, tone, timing, etc.) we avoid feeling the more profound reaction this particular observation is having in us.
Reacting with accountability. When we are ready to apologise or confront, we can check a few things so the experience will be more meaningful:
Try to reach more equal positions:
- Being aware of the possible power dynamics and privileges
- Using straightforward and simplified language
- In face-to-face situations, paying attention to your non-verbal communication." Is your body language open?" Defensiveness and embarrassment will make everything harder or even play against your best intentions.
- Working on your paraverbal communication. It takes about 30 to 38 per cent of what a person communicates. (4)
Take accountability for your actions. Name the impact you thought you had on the other person. (e.g.) "I'm sorry I used that terminology, that was othering and invisibilising." Not: "I'm sorry you're upset.")
Share what you are planning to do to shift your behaviour in the future. (e.g.) "I am going to educate myself better on inclusive language and not make assumptions. Next time I will ask what terms people prefer."
Don’t beat yourself up. First of all, you don't deserve it. Secondly, it might be an unconscious way of asking for reassurance that we're not "bad", so the other person must comfort us, and we shift the focus from their needs to ours.
Let’s do the work and focus on that “next time” while:
- Committing ourselves to work (and live) with accountability, engaged in authentic relationships with the people/communities we work with.
- Keeping our ego and our impatience at bay because sometimes, it will be harder to give up some of the power, recognition, and speed we are used to to be a part of the change.
- Avoid spirals of shame or self-doubt.
What if I am feeling demotivated because of critical feedback?
- Keep the ‘ME file’ updated with pieces that remind you of your good work and progress.
- Ask others for positive feedback.
- Practice positive talk with yourself.
- Remember that Feedback = Gift.
What if I disagree with the feedback received?
It’s ok. We sometimes get feedback that is just wholly amiss or motivated by something other than genuine interest in our personal growth or collective liberation. However, it should not stop our practice of soliciting and integrating direct feedback. It trains us to be more at ease with differences, discomfort and conflict, which is ultimately just part of life. Also, you might disagree with it now but find it accurate later on.
End of the first part.
Click here for part two: Giving feedback.
Kemê Pellicer (she/her) is a multidisciplinary artist, DEI specialist, culture worker, parent, poet and more than anything, human, based in Helsinki.
Kemê’s bio at the Culture for All Service, Diversity Agents.
Thank you, Arlene Tucker and Tesi de Aegis for your “ruthless” feedback on this article.
3) Valid Critical feedback, Unjustified Critical Feedback, Vague Critical Feedback – from “Critical Feedback. How do we handle it?” Article. https://www.i-expert.biz/ezine.html
4) Paraverbal Communication Explained with Examples