Straight, No Chaser

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I vividly remember the first time I had a sip of Maker’s Mark whiskey. I was in a bar in downtown Gainesville during my college days. My buddy Jason and I were out shooting pool (something I’m absolutely terrible at). I remember drinking a few Samuel Adams throughout the night (a “craft” beer at the time in my mind) before Jason offered to buy me a shot.

Let me preface this with the fact that if there’s one person on earth that truly hates taking shots, it’s me. The whole process just doesn’t seem enjoyable.

Despite my constant whining and pleading, Jason order up two shots of Maker’s Mark whiskey. I grudgingly tossed mine back and surfaced an expression on my face that likely made it seem as if I was going to lose my cookies at any moment.

Fast forward to the present day. I wouldn’t consider myself a connoisseur of whiskey, but I can enjoy a good one straight on ice, a momentous leap forward from my college days, which largely consisted of whatever beer was on sale at the time. To say that I’ve grown in my appreciation for alcohol is an understatement. Somehow, I managed to make it past viewing alcohol solely as a catalyst for a good time and to a point where I can appreciate brewing and distilling as an art form.

But, let’s take a step back for a second. The point of this post is to discuss receiving feedback, not to present a timeline of my experience with alcohol although I promise to draw a comparison1.

I read an interesting post from Seth Godin over the weekend. In the post, Seth talks about the main differences between actual feedback and phony feedback (referred to as applause). The former offers constructive criticism. Meanwhile, the latter is more of a pat on the back disguised as feedback.

After reading the post, I was instantly reminded of times in my life where I sought out “applause” when I should have been looking for feedback. By simply asking questions, I justified my own personal goal of obtaining feedback, but rarely did I ever actually dig in for the real stuff. The kind of stuff that hurts a bit but promises a big return in the end.

I came to realize that real feedback, the honest-to-goodness truth, is often a lot like taking your first drink of whiskey. You’re probably going to hate it2. It’s going to burn and sting. You’re going to feel incredibly uncomfortable, and you will likely want to avoid the situation in the future.

But, after awhile, you might start to enjoy it. The burning and stinging only lasts for a little bit, and heck, you might even be able to take the constructive criticism and improve.

Over time, you’ll start to crave great feedback, and you’ll easily be able to tell honest opinions from blind praise (just like Maker’s Mark from plastic-bottle crap).

The hard part is exposing yourself to situations that truly make you uncomfortable.

Tip-Toeing Around the Truth

I used to teach a variety of group fitness classes ranging from cycling to TRX to classic bootcamps. At the end of each class, I would ask the group what they thought of the workout. Depending on the size of the class and whether or not they were familiar with my style of teaching, I would usually get a few groans, maybe a couple of thumbs up, and silence from everyone else. I would go on with my teaching style assuming that everything was fine. After all, I gave them a chance for feedback didn’t I?

When I look back, I wasn’t really asking for feedback at all. I was looking for a few “good job” quotes to satisfy my daily ego boost.

We do this all the time when we’re looking to get our way. When we ask simple questions, we frame them in a way that guides the other individual towards our preference. We like to talk about the things we do well rather than those we’re terrible at.

Framing our questions to only receive information that compliments our current views is one way of hiding from negative feedback. While we think we’re asking for feedback, we’re really just asking for affirmation. We want to hear a “yes” rather than input.

While I was a graduate assistant at the University of Florida, I gave a brief presentation to our group fitness instructors on gathering feedback from their participants. I proposed a different solution. What if, at the end of every class, they asked each participant for one thing they would change for next time? Sure, the instructors would probably receive an overwhelming amount of criticism if every participant is forced to come up with something, but in my mind, that was just fodder to make the next class even better.

In the spirit of dogfooding my own idea, I started to ask this question as well. At first, I found participants were reluctant to give feedback at all. Then, slowly but surely, since I asked similar questions each week to a similar group of students, I started to get more answers.

Sure, the feedback wasn’t exactly usable at first, but the key point was that I was getting actual feedback, not just groans and the occasional thumbs up.

Get the Real Stuff

Honest feedback is an acquired taste for sure. It’ll take a few times before you can fully appreciate the “here’s what you can do better for next time” part of project review. Here are some pointers on going from “I hate this part” to “I can see value in what you’re saying”:

  1. Check your emotions at the door. It’s hard not to get hurt when someone criticizes something you’ve worked so hard on, but it’s also imperative for growth. View this as an opportunity to crush the “next time” rather than a pity party for “this time”.
  2. Be brutally honest with yourself. In most scenarios, I’m my toughest critic, but every once in awhile, I drift off into daydream land where everything is perfect. Snap yourself out of it. Set realistic goals but avoid cashing in excuses. Be your own toughest critic. That way, any additional feedback can’t be all that bad.
  3. Ask friends/family/partners for true feedback on anything. How could you have better handled a situation? What could you have done better? If they are true friends, they’ll give it to you straight3.
  4. Pepper your supervisors with questions until they give you something tangible to improve upon. Realize that supervisors often hate giving negative feedback just as much as you do (at least in the beginning). Let them know you can handle it (because you can). They’ll be grateful that they can give it to you straight, no chaser required.

Hopefully, you aren’t there just for a pat on the back and a “good job”. You’re there to improve.

1. That topic could fill an entire post. Continue Reading
2. Read “definitely”. Continue Reading
3. If they don’t, you need better friends. Continue Reading
Photo credit: Kirti Poddar

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