For my whole life I have been incredibly sensitive to feedback in which I detect even the tiniest hint of criticism. I am also prone to finding criticism where it probably doesn’t exist at all. Being sensitive is not necessarily a character flaw — in fact, being sensitive can mean enjoying an array of nuanced positive emotions associated with a sensitive disposition, as well as being associated with high creativity, empathy, and self-awareness. But being particularly sensitive to criticism can make life difficult. It can be embarrassing to feel your composure crumble in the face of such a frequent, necessary, and incredibly useful aspect of life.
There are plenty of reasons why feedback can be hard to take. Feedback can challenge our ideas about the quality or impact of our work, and unfortunately the people who give us feedback are not always kind in delivering it. Feedback can also create extra work for us that we were not necessarily expecting. But of course, feedback improves our work, and ultimately our knowledge and skills. And, as I always try to remind myself, a person rarely takes time to provide feedback in the first place if they don’t genuinely believe in you and your ability to succeed — so receiving feedback at all, and having access to people willing to give it, is a wonderful privilege.
I’ve had the privilege of receiving a lot of feedback throughout my career so far. The most intense period was during my first teaching practicum, during which my supervising teacher gave me continuous feedback about my teaching, all day and every day for five weeks. I remember it as a very rewarding but emotionally turbulent time, particularly because of the need to process the feedback whilst keeping my cool in front of thirty teenagers. This experience made me more resilient, and now, while I navigate my PhD, my ability to receive, accept, and act upon feedback has improved greatly. While I’m sure some of this comes down to maturity, I have certainly developed some practical skills along the way, and I’d like to share a few of these with you here.
1. Request feedback proactively
You are going to receive feedback whether you like it or not, so it helps to take control of the process wherever possible. When presenting your work to a supervisor or reviewer, if you are able to, ask for feedback about specific aspects of your work, such as those that are most relevant to their area of expertise, or parts that you need the most help with. Being specific with your request will not only help the reviewer provide feedback that will be most useful to you, but will also minimise any surprises in the feedback you receive. In their Nature column ‘The care and maintenance of your adviser’, Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner liken saying “give me feedback” to walking into a restaurant and saying “give me food” — if you don’t ask specifically for what you want or need, your adviser can only make a guess as to what that is. Be an active, rather than passive, feedback recipient.
2. Seek feedback from more people
It may seem counterintuitive, but seeking more feedback can make it easier to digest. When 100% of the feedback you receive is from just one person, the weight of their opinion can feel disproportionately heavy. On the other hand, feedback from multiple people allows you to consider different opinions about your work; what one person criticises, another may compliment. And where opinions converge, the path forward is easier to identify. This way you can take on board what serves you and leave behind what doesn’t. Seeking feedback from multiple people, if you can, can reduce the emotional burden of receiving it.
3. Make space and time to process feedback
I have set three rules for myself to follow when I receive written feedback:
- Read the feedback, then walk away and react.
- At least a few hours later, but preferably the next day, read the feedback again and start working on any revisions.
- Wait at least 24 hours before responding to the reviewer personally.
If I don’t follow these rules, I know that I am at risk of conveying an overly emotional response to the reviewer, and this is not how I wish to represent myself. My initial anxious reaction is not an accurate representation of my rational thoughts and feelings, so I have no intention of sharing it. Obviously I would prefer to eliminate the emotional response altogether, but that is not a realistic option, so I have learnt the importance of creating space for myself, both physically and mentally, to digest feedback and appreciate its value. Sometimes this isn’t possible, such as when you are receiving feedback face-to-face, or if you are on a tight deadline and need to respond quickly. In these situations, self-awareness is key. But where you can, make space for yourself to react, so that you can put your best foot forward when you are ready to respond.
4. Give feedback
By far the thing that’s had the most positive impact on my ability to receive feedback has been practicing giving feedback. I previously mentioned the feedback festival that was my first teaching practicum. Well, once I became a qualified teacher and got my first classroom teaching role, I quickly became versed in the art of giving feedback. Giving positive feedback was joyous and energising, and giving difficult feedback could be heartbreaking. But whatever the nature of the feedback I provided, it gave me some crucial insights into the purpose and effects of feedback on learners. Good feedback is about the product, not the person — even if it doesn’t always feel that way when you’re on the receiving end. Moreover, constructive feedback is evidence of the reviewer’s belief in your ability to do better — and hopefully, that’s what you’re aiming for too. If you, like me, struggle with receiving feedback, seek opportunities to provide feedback, such as in a writing circle, a tutoring role, or a peer review workshop. You might even find you become a better, and kinder, reviewer of your own work.