Sunday, December 4, 2011

Accepting Feedback - The Role of Identity

It's impossible to do this work perfectly, so it's inevitable that we'll all sooner or later face criticism of one form or another from supervisors and clients (often more frequently than we'd prefer). Whatever euphemism we use (e.g., constructive criticism, feedback), these conversations are inherently difficult. Our responses, both internal and external, determine whether such conversations lead to positive results (professional and/or personal growth, mutual learning, improved rapport) or negative results (damage to relationships, self-esteem, and self-efficacy).

In the book Difficult Conversations, the authors argue that all interpersonally challenging conversations share a common structure, with three threads:
1) The "What Happened?" Conversation, which involves debate over what "really" happened (i.e., the Truth), what each person's intentions were, and where to place blame.
2) The Feelings Conversation, which involves whether and how each participant's feelings are addressed
3) The Identity Conversation, in which each participant determines what the current issue says about them, and how they see themselves in light of the current issue.

I tend to think the first two threads are easier to manage - after all, social workers have plenty of experience addressing emotions, and have practice (albeit with varying degrees of success) considering competing constructions of reality. Because the third thread happens deeper in the psyche, and plays on any lingering insecurities or self-doubts (we all have them!), I find it the hardest part of difficult conversations to manage. However, managing this third thread has a significant benefit, both in how we feel afterward, and in making the other two threads easier to navigate.

Criticism is hard to hear because it poses a threat to our sense of self - typically by causing us to question our own competence, goodness, or worthiness of love. To some degree, it is inevitable that feedback will challenge our identities. However, it's also possible to reduce our vulnerability to these challenges, and the intensity of the distress we feel as a result. 

1) Develop an awareness of your identity issues and vulnerabilities. Notice what elements or types of feedback unbalance you, and explore the feelings and thoughts you have during these moments to identify patterns - aspects of identity that are vulnerable to upset. 

2) Avoid all-or-nothing thinking. Our sense of self is more likely to be thrown off by feedback if we think we are either competent or incompetent, good or evil, worthy or unworthy of love - one extreme or the other, with no middle ground. We are more threatened by feedback if we're trying to hold onto a completely positive identity that leaves no room for flaws (which means we have to respond to negative feedback with denial to maintain our identity), or if we go to the opposite extreme, exaggerating the negative feedback so that it defines who we are - if I'm not perfect, then I must be worthless. The solution is to develop a more complex self-image that includes a range of both positive and negative qualities, and resist the impulse to make any one quality, positive or negative, the only element of identity that matters.

3) Accept that you sometimes make mistakes (we all do), your intentions are complex and sometimes mixed, and you have contributed to the problem in one way or another. Admitting these things requires a balanced, rather than all-or-nothing, self-image, and admitting them to ourselves makes it easier to admit them to another person. 

4) Put the current issue in perspective by asking yourself what significant this will have for your identity in the future - next week, next year, in ten years.

5) Remember that there may be identity issues at stake for the other person, too.

Of course, it's impossible to do these things perfectly (that would be another all-or-nothing expectation!), but working on them does lessen the intensity of distress we experience when we do receive feedback, and therefore allows us to respond more skillfully, and learn what we can from the encounter. 

How do you cope with the identity implications of feedback or criticism? 

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