Making sense of the complex process of absorbing and utilizing feedback
Everyone deals with feedback, sometimes wanted, sometimes unwanted. From an approving nod on the train to a suggestive comment from your friend, we all receive criticism constantly.
Personally, I experience this at an abnormal rate. It is mostly self-inflicting since I am a designer. This fact makes feedback part of my daily life. However, sometimes absorbing these criticisms can prove to be much harder than expected. Since we all have an innate need for approval, we often get hurt by comments about our work. But this shouldn’t deter us from engaging with the process, it should motivate us to reflect on it. According to Stanford Professor Carol Dweck’s studies, fully immersing ourselves is the only way to overcome our own errors.
Reflecting, not reacting, on new information allows us to be more open-minded and empowers us to adjust our own preconceived ideas of the world. In this article, I want to reflect on the process surrounding feedback to better understand how it works and how we can benefit from the process.
Appreciation of feedback
New ideas or concepts can either change or strengthen our own perspective. I want to argue that the feedback process is very similar to the learning process. In both scenarios, we grow in understanding and our end goal is the same, progress. In both of these circumstances, we also delve through different layers of cognition in the hopes of unearthing something new or profound.
In the educational industry, a very popular mental model has already been developed to pinpoint these specific stages of thought and comprehension. This model is called Bloom’s taxonomy, and it is normally used to structure learning objectives, assessments, and activities. I believe that this modal can be used to frame a relatable model for the feedback process.
Bloom’s taxonomy consists of six levels of cognition. Starting with the most basic level, remembering, and working it’s way up to the highest level of creating. Below I will be building on this idea to create a complementary model for the feedback process.
Step 1 — Collect
(Bloom’s taxonomy = Remember, the act of recalling facts and basic concepts)
How is the person interacting with the work? What is the person saying about the work? To kick off the feedback process, we first need to gather the basic information. This can happen through observing reactions and receiving a written, visual, or spoken response. You will most likely attempt to link these new ideas with past experiences, but it can’t stop there. Our next priority should be to understand the feedback, so let’s not accept all feedback at face value.
Step 2 — Question
(Bloom’s taxonomy = Understand, the act of explaining or discussing concepts)
Why is the person saying this? and Why am I agreeing or disagreeing with this idea? The goal of this step is to clear up any uncertainty. You will need to do this before you will be able to push past your own pre-existing ideas. To clarify the reviewer's intent, ask probing questions to draw out tangible results. Sometimes the easiest way to move past this point is to draw it out physically. Draw out the solution you think the person is communicating and ask questions along the way. It is often at this moment that the reviewer will only formulate their own feedback or arguments.
Step 3 — Contextualize
(Bloom’s taxonomy = Apply, the act of using the information in new situations)
What is going on within the bigger picture, that I am not seeing? When you have fully understood the feedback, you will be ready to consider other angles of that perspective. These can include the context of the feedback or the circumstances surrounding the specific perspectives. The person providing you with the feedback might have their own agendas or preconceived ideas. A common example of this would be someone from sales pushing for something that will help them meet their monthly target. Identifying these agendas early will help you decide what feedback to take on-board or disregard.
Step 4 — Re-evaluate
(Bloom’s taxonomy = Analyze, the act of drawing connections amongst ideas)
How else can I interpret this information? How else can I view my problem? This is your final chance to take a step back from your own perspective. Compare the feedback received with your original idea. There is a chance you are interpreting the problem you are trying to solve incorrectly. You might be anchored to a specific solution or having tunnel vision. Allow yourself the chance to grow by looking at your own perspective from a different angle. This step will allow the next to be much easier to explore.
Step 5 — Conceptualize
(Bloom’s taxonomy = Evaluate, the act of justifying a stance or direction)
If I was to interpret this idea in the most useful way, what are the possibilities? After doing some mental gymnastics you should be able to have a clearer idea of the new perspective. In some cases, this step will be morphed with the next. In others, the feedback could be so ambiguous that it makes this step necessary. The goal of this step is to make the abstract into something tangible, so draft the solution in a tangible way. If possible, create multiple solutions from your new-found perspective. Iterate, iterate, and iterate. You might have to bounce between steps 5 and 6 multiple times, in order to find that “perfect solution”.
Step 6 — Re-create
(Bloom’s taxonomy = Create, the act of producing new or original work)
Just do it! Finally, the pièce de résistance and the reason why you wanted feedback in the first place. After going through each step, you have thought critically about the new information you received. You have examined your own perspective and have considered all the underlying misconceptions. You have now mentally prepared for this moment. So what are you waiting for? Create!
Note: This methodology is definitely not for each situation, as feedback doesn’t always allow for much reflection. However, having a methodical approach or general framework could assist in disentangling more complex problems. Please note that I wrote this from a design perspective, so this process might not align perfectly with your own situation.
Other useful links
- Dweck’s TEDTalk, ‘The power of believing that you can improve’
- An article on developing a growth mindset
- Charles Duhigg’s TEDTalk, ‘The power of habit’
Thank you for reading
I found writing this article really helpful in making sense of my own perceptions and habits around feedback, but I know there is still much to learn. So, please provide me with your perspective and thoughts on the subject. Like you can see, I love reflecting on feedback. Thank you!