F – Face Feedback

Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson have written that “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” To improve, we need guidance as to how we’re doing. We need to face the cold, hard facts of reality. We need to embrace the unvarnished truth. Feedback from those that care about us and know the subject in which we’re seeking to improve can be incredibly valuable. Unfortunately, it’s something that we’re not good at receiving. Instead, we’re doing our best to flee feedback. In How Champions Think, sport psychologists Bob Rotella and Bob Cullen point out that, “Exceptional people, in my experience, are almost always good at the tricky art of self-evaluation. Most people are not.” Instead, most of us talk a good game around feedback while ignoring it entirely. We behave more like how Sylvia Ann Hewlett writes in Executive Presence, “everybody says they welcome feedback, but then persists in thinking they’re perfect.” Unfortunately, as James Clear wrote in an email, “Most people don’t want accurate information, they want validating information. Growth requires you to be open to unlearning ideas that previously served you.” The masses want to feel good as opposed to get good. Francois de La Rochefoucauld observed, “Few people have the wisdom to prefer the criticism that would do them good, to the praise that deceives them.” As Harold J. Smith offers, “More people would learn from their mistakes if they weren’t so busy denying them.” Our go to response isn’t to cater to criticism. It’s not to fess up to mess ups. It’s the opposite. We seek to hide, obfuscate, lie, blame, or deny responsibility. We work to escape not engage. This doesn’t just limit learning, it precludes it. Most of us see feedback as criticism. We see it as an attack against us personally as opposed to information intended to help improve. The personal threat amps anxiety which closes our thinking. We shrink as opposed to seek it. In this weakness lies the ability to be willing to do what others won’t and learn to look at feedback favorably.

The few that favor feedback see it similarly to Matthew Syed writing in Black Box Thinking, “No one can possibly give us more service than by showing us what is wrong with what we think or do; and the bigger the fault, the bigger the improvement made possible by its revelation. The man who welcomes and acts on criticism will prize it almost above friendship: the man who fights it out of concern to maintain his position is clinging to non growth.” Sure, it doesn’t necessarily feel good to have someone point out you have food stuck between your teeth, but better find out so that you can do something about it. Feedback is just like food on your face. We may be a little embarrassed or ashamed when our flaws are pointed out. It may hurt to hear and make us uncomfortable, but we also don’t want to walk around with our flaw floating on our face. We want to improve. If we want to improve, we must welcome information that doesn’t feel good. Being coachable lies at the root of developing competence.

The elite don’t just embrace but chase constructive criticism. They are relentlessly searching for input to help them improve. They know that identifying where they are going wrong is required to adjust and accelerate their learning. The path to proficiency is about heightening our sensitivity to feedback. If we can learn sooner where we’re off track, we can get back on track faster. More delicate deviations reflect higher levels of skill. The best want to get real or not play. They agree wholeheartedly with what Jack Canfield writes in The Success Principles, “The truth is the truth. You are better off knowing the truth… You cannot fix what you don’t know is broken. You cannot improve your life, your relationships, your game, or your performance without feedback.” In his book, Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins writes, “I realized that the main difference between the people who seemed to be successful—in any area!—and those who weren’t was that successful people asked better questions, and as a result, they got better answers.” The best are asking questions like how can I improve, how do I get better, what adjustments must I make whereas the average are either not asking or asking questions like how do I look good? The best realize that to become better their desire to develop must outshine their self-consciousness and insecurities.

In Why the Best Are the Best, Kevin Eastman writes, “Whereas the truth may set you free, the best of the best will tell you that the truth will actually ‘set you up.’ It will set you up for your development. It will set you up for your growth. It will set you up for your improvement. Truth is the key ingredient to success that tells you exactly what you need to do, what you need to change, and what you need to improve upon.” The best recognize, appreciate, and crave the truth. In Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger writes, “I was always honest about my weak points. This helped me grow. I think it’s the key to success in everything: be honest; know where you’re weak; admit it.” Jack Canfield concurs, writing in The Success Principles, “Successful people…face facts squarely.” Canfield notes that “Life will always give you feedback about the effects of your behavior if you will just pay attention… The only starting point that works is reality.” In fact, as Shane Snow writes in Smartcuts, “The research showed that experts—people who were masters at a trade—vastly preferred negative feedback to positive. It spurred the most improvement. That was because criticism is generally more actionable than compliments.”

The best relish input from those they respect. They see feedback as information from someone that has their best interests at heart. As Peter Bregman observes in Four Seconds, “Giving people feedback is an act of trust and confidence. It shows that you believe in their ability to change, that you believe they will use the information to become better, and that you have faith in their potential. It’s also a sign of commitment to the team and to the larger purpose and goals of the organization.” High performers see feedback as their friend. On some level they understand that no feedback doesn’t mean they’ve got things figured out. Unfortunately, it can mean the opposite as Brandon Webb and John David Mann note in Total Focus writing, “When people don’t tell you what you’re doing wrong, it means they’ve given up on you.” If there is no feedback to be had, you should feel anything but glad. It doesn’t mean that you’ve figured things out. It likely means the opposite. That others no longer think it is worth their time to try to help you improve. Others have given up on you. That’s a worse position to be in than suffering emotionally feeling bad about receiving feedback. Feedback is a gift. Feedback is a sign that others are interested in your development. Feedback means others still believe you can get better. Feedback doesn’t mean that it’s correct, that you are obliged to adopt it. Feedback just means that someone cares enough to try to help you improve.

To become better at facing feedback we can take two tacks. First, we must callous ourselves against criticism. Unfortunately, most of us equate feedback not to guidance but to criticism which we allow to crush us. Despite being taught from our earliest ages that stick and stones will break our bones, but names can never hurt us, we feel the sting of words as almost a physical assault. Where we fear feedback, we shrink and retreat from reality. The successful flip this script planting their ego in the back seat. They listen to learn, not blindly, nor do they let their emotions rule when hearing things which are discomfiting. Fans of feedback see it as information, a suggestion, or recommendation. It is up to them to determine whether they will internalize and act on it. They remain in control of themselves and their direction. They aren’t allowing their self-worth to be defined by the words of others. They figure out a filter for feedback which allows them to ignore criticism and focus on constructive guidance. The former they discount actively questioning both the source and the contents. The latter they recognize is necessary to helping them.

Second, we must develop our desire to improve. Praise is fluff. If the answer to the question, how am I doing is great, looking good, then little is learned. Future actions won’t be improved. We’re less likely to look for ways to get better when patted on the back. Praise satisfies and leads to complacency. Feedback, on the other hand, is a force. Feedback fuels a focus and drives development. Strivers recognize the difference between feeling good and being good. They are comfortable with the discomfort that comes with development because the prize of being good is worth it. The thirstier we are to improve, the hungrier we’ll be for help. Do we care about ourselves or outcome? If we care about ourselves, we seek validation instead of feedback. If we care about the outcome, we’re open to feedback. If we really care about the outcome, we crave feedback and actively seek it out. If you’re struggling with feedback in an area, you should check in and reflect on your commitment to this area. Is this something you care about? Are you motivated to improve? Or is the subject on which you’re receiving feedback something about which you care little?

The desire to develop drives the best to find ways to solicit feedback. There is a strong positive correlation between those that seek feedback and high performance. Performers are constantly and actively considering who they can turn to for help. Sometimes performers are forced to solicit feedback because as they improve and become successful others become reluctant to offer further advice. The reluctance can come from both not knowing how to help the best get better as well as fear of offending those at the top. The best are never satisfied regardless of what level of accomplishment has been attained. They recognize there’s more still to gain.

Those hungry for help are seeking out credible sources that understand their own goals and context. Not all opinions are equal. Curate your contributors. Whose feedback is worth considering? Ask, do I believe they have my interests at heart? Are we going to be paralyzed into inaction because of all the online haters? Some people’s opinion matter more than others. It’s not just those that have skill and expertise in each area, but those that know us and care about us. I heard an accomplished person offer their method for filtering feedback that resonated. They were a public person that would have received both positive and negative criticism for their work. To continue to be strong and work to improve they limited the feedback they faced. Their process for determining which feedback to consider was to list the names of the people whose opinion they did care about on a small 2” x 2” business card. The effort spent determining whose input was important made this individual intentional. They were able to ignore or discount feedback, good, bad, or otherwise, from the rest of the world of amateurs, critics, and fans. It was only the handful of names that fit on their 2” x 2” card that mattered. This individual would listen to and act upon feedback received from only these people. They are looking to others they respect and asking questions like, is what I’m doing working? Could I be doing it better? What am I doing that’s not working? What should I be doing less of? What am I not doing that I should try doing? Additionally, questions like in what way do I limit myself or how do you see me getting in my own way help spur self-awareness that we may be lacking.

In efforts to solicit feedback, work to control not just whose feedback to actively consider, but when. Limit the input of feedback to certain times and places and you’ll be better primed to receive it. It’s like taking control over your inbox and scheduling times to check in instead of being at the mercy of whatever hits your inbox next. You could schedule your feedback to follow certain events. You can also ask questions after every practice, meeting, or performance to those you know and respect to rate the quality of the event on a scale of 1 – 10. From their answer, you can ask what would it take to improve the score you offered to a ten? Research scientists in the field of habit formation call these implementation intentions. You can craft an “if-then” statement that will cue you to consider feedback. If x happens, then I’ll do y. After a presentation, I’ll seek feedback from Y, for example. Then as feedback is received, filter it through the lens of does it help? Specifically, is it actionable? Daniel Pink in Drive affirms the value of specific feedback writing, “The more feedback focuses on specifics (‘great use of color’)—and the more the praise is about effort and strategy rather than about achieving a particular outcome—the more effective it can be.” Feedback should be specific. Specific about two things: the past, what happened, and the future, what needs to be done. The advice relates to direction, future, where we’re going. Actionable advice is what’s nice. Pointing out flaws alone isn’t ideal. It’s both a recognition of the gap plus a suggestion of what specific action to take to close the gap.

Feedback is simply information. You choose to either use or refuse. Just because feedback is received doesn’t mean it has to be accepted. It can be listened to and filtered for what works in your present circumstances. Feedback comes from someone’s observation of an activity as well as their interpretation of the observation. What you receive as feedback depends on what was seen by someone else and their perspective of it. Do you share the giver’s perspective? Do they know things you don’t? Is their value in their advice? Who benefits from adopting the direction offered? Consider “trying” the feedback. Consider it an experiment. Not a direction. This lowers the stakes of the feedback and depersonalizes it. Try the advice in your mind’s eye, then consider trying it in a low-risk environment. Then slowly adopt across larger scope of your day if it is working.

Our objective in willing to face feedback is to develop, as Ray Dalio writes in Principles, “a process that ensures problems are brought to the surface, and their root causes diagnosed, assures that continual improvements occur.” Learning to look for errors and seek guidance from others will help propel us on the path to progress while offering an opportunity to demonstrate being willing to do what others won’t. In short, if you want to kick ass and take names, you must be able to endure having your ass kicked and being named. A receptivity to failure and feedback is essential to growth.


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