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Do you have FOF? (Fear of feedback?)

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Turns out a lot of us are feedback phobic.

I rarely talk about my affliction (the first step in recovery: acknowledge the problem), because clients know me as someone who has taught others how to give and receive feedback. But it’s not hard to tell someone else to be specific with the feedback they give or to say thank-you when they receive it; it’s another thing to receive feedback yourself.

My dirty little secret is that I’m sensitive, and feedback can leave me cowering in the corner looking hangdog like my pooch Riley when he’s feeling confused.

I hate class evaluations. When I teach, I pour my heart and soul into preparing. Then, in class, I work with participants as if they are friends. I care. At the end of a training or presentation that appears to have gone reasonably well, the last thing I want to do is hand out rating sheets with their dismal ten-point scales. That’s like handing pistols to participants and telling them, “OK, now shoot me.”

It turns out I’m not the only one who has trouble receiving feedback. Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, authors of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, wrote:

“As we worked to develop ways to approach feedback differently, we soon realized that the key player is not the giver, but the receiver.” 

“Receiving feedback sits at the intersection of these two needs—our drive to learn and our longing for acceptance. These needs run deep, and the tension between them is not going away.”

“Receiving it [feedback] well means engaging in the conversation skillfully and making thoughtful choices about whether and how to use the information and what you’re learning. It’s about managing your emotional triggers …”

I devoured their ideas, hungry for tips, knowing that in just a few hours friends would be arriving to give me feedback about a draft introduction to my book.

I needed help. (Really? To talk with three kind and compassionate friends?)

When you have FOF, feedback is always difficult.

Heen and Stone distinguish three kinds of feedback:

  1. Appreciation: Positive acknowledgment–something most all of us want and need.
  2. Coaching: Specific ideas designed to help you improve performance.
  3. Evaluation: Information that includes a judgment about how you rank or place.

I like kinds one and two. Unfortunately, I often translate designed-to-be-helpful coaching into number three: evaluation. (What, I’m not perfect?).
Evaluative feedback is rarely necessary for me because I run an in-home, in-my-brain evaluation service that judges me constantly. My father trained me in the fine art of self-judgment at an early age, offering me lots of critical comments designed to “help” me and show his love.

As a result, it’s pretty easy for me to overdose on even small amounts of evaluative feedback.

I’m not alone. Feedback triggers a lot of us. Part of the art of handling feedback, according to Heen and Stone, requires managing our triggers. They cite three kinds of triggers:

  1. Truth triggers–when the feedback seems off, unhelpful or untrue
  2. Relationship triggers–when we get tripped up by our relationship with the person giving the feedback.
  3. Identity triggers–when the feedback rattles our sense of identity and we feel threatened, ashamed or off-balance, no longer sure how to think about ourselves. This is where I go down. (Don’t like that section of work? Well, that proves it, I’m not a writer.)

When my identity is triggered, I disappear. Sure, if I’m working I’ll still stand in front of people with my mouth moving, trying to look professional as if nothing has happened, but the truth is I’m a shell. My real self-has learned to evacuate at the first sign of danger.

The authors acknowledge that some of us are particularly sensitive to identify triggers and may need some extra time to regain our bearings (tell me about it!). But they don’t offer an easy fix.

I was so hoping I could be inoculated.

Learning that there are many of us who are sensitive to feedback helps me have compassion for others. Those of us who give feedback can benefit from realizing that what we say may not be what our receivers hear after filtering information through their identity systems.

Preparing for my big evening of book feedback

As I read about feedback, I knew I needed more than insight: in four hours I’d need to manage myself at an event.

Here’s what I did, and what can you do, to set the stage for helpful feedback:

First a little self-talk.

Note to self: my friends are not my judges, they are coming to help.

State the context.

It’s my job to set up the feedback process, I will ask my friends for appreciation and coaching. They do not need to tell me whether my book is 1) good or 2) publishable. I don’t need evaluative feedback at this early stage of a long writing process. They might also want to be careful not to offer directives about what I should do. It’s just too tempting for me to morph into a circus cat and get burned trying to jump through all of their hoops.

Probe deeper.

It’s fair to ask questions, and I’ll receive more gems of insights if I ask to clarify what I’ve heard.

Make specific requests.

Writing and branding consultant Jeffrey Davis, coaches his writer-clients like me to be very specific in asking for feedback about their writing. “How did you like my book?” is too general a question to be useful. He also suggests that we writers manage the process of asking for feedback. For example, if someone strays too far away from our questions or adds too much judgment, we need to graciously redirect the conversation.

Here’s the kind of feedback I’ve requested from fellow participants in Jeffrey’s programs:

  • Where did my writing pull you in?
  • Where did you get lost?
  • Where could I have been clearer?
  • What particularly interested you?
  • Do you still love me? (Sometimes I can’t resist.)

Comfort yourself.

Knowing I am sensitive, I have dark chocolate ready.

The bottom line

If you, like me, have FOF, there’s help for us. We can read the Heen and Stone book. We can improve our feedback-receiving skills. We can practice identifying identity-triggers. We can have compassion for ourselves.

Repeat after me: I am sensitive. I am not defective. I can survive feedback and make it work for me. 

Footnote: Hurrah! With wonderful support from my friends and their thoughtful comments, the feedback session on the book was incredibly useful and encouraging, despite some FOF and a few identity tweaks! 


4 Responses

  1. This is awesome, Sally! As a fellow FOFer, you nailed it. As the leader of a poetry group, and creator of a different workshop model than I experienced in academia, your points directly overlap the points I’ve set out for participants, for a happy and productive feedback experience. Thank you! And yes to dark chocolate waiting.

    1. Thanks Susan. I bet yours is a great poetry group – your participants are lucky to have your insight on setting up a safe and productive group!

  2. Sally, thanks for this wonderful blog. I have FOF, but in only one of the two forms in which I typically encounter it. If feedback is face-to-face, then I have the affect of the feedback giver to balance any pain from the feedback. That helps immensely because people are both loving and accountable in most of the situations where live feedback comes to me. But as a teacher I feared the anonymity of student feedback because it lacked loving presence and personal accountability. To me, anonymous feedback is a strong invitation to uncaring behavior. Finally, I’ve found Liz Lerman’s approach useful and often use some version of it:

  3. Wow, love it!

    And honestly, aren’t the arts (especially writing) the WORST when it comes to feedback? For me, it triggers all of the times I didn’t get an A++ in my papers in school. I think that’s why being a co-author is so deadly. You get hated because you’re a necessary evil and a reminder the author can’t get an A if they try alone..

    But I can tell you that, having worked at the professional writer thing for a while, you do get to a point where you trust your abilities enough to be able to not only handle criticism, but to crave it!

    Which is why most bestsellers have a big acknowledgments section

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