Feedback is Your Greatest Teacher

Before I was a therapist, I was a dancer and dance teacher. It was through that experience that I learned that feedback is your greatest teacher.

When my students and I embarked on our first competition experience, only one of them made it to the podium. Despite the lack of trophies, what we took away was far greater than that. We got the judges’ feedback! We poured over every word and used it to make performances better. We were mindful. We had a weekly recital where every student who wanted it got the same type of feedback from me. The next year we got more awards. The next there were even more. By the time I stopped teaching, we had become the school to beat. All because I learned and taught that feedback is your greatest teacher.

Fortunately, this doesn’t just apply to dance. It applies to life.

Feedback is a gift. Regardless of whether or not the sender intends for it to land that way, if you accept it as a gift, you have the means to grow beyond your present limitations. Not all people can give it. Not all people can receive it. If you are in either category, I challenge you to change this.

Some feel that saying anything remotely critical will hurt someone’s feelings so they avoid it. The saying, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar” is always true. There is usually a way to deliver any message in a softer way. When there isn’t, I find that honesty has a way of resonating as caring. When neither of those is true, you can simply let go of the outcome. You have no control over how a thing is received. Sometimes people aren’t ready to hear the truth, and that’s okay. If you deliver information in the spirit of caring, you offer a gift. The recipient can always refuse it.

Sometimes the challenge in receiving feedback comes from not knowing if the words are criticism or feedback. Criticism is never helpful. It tends to be subjective, hurtful, and has no means for the person to grow. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Criticism vs. Feedback

“That’s ugly.”

Criticism. It’s subjective. It’s doesn’t move anyone to a better place. It’s destructive and hurtful.

“You never listen.”

Feedback. Translation: I am not feeling heard. Can you show me in a different way that what I say is penetrating and means something to you?

“Blue is not a good color on you.”

This one is iffy. It depends on tone and the circumstances around why it is said. If the person is helping you to pick out an outfit and is someone whose fashion sense you respect, it’s probably feedback. It’s still subjective, though, and may not be the best advice.

“Slow down!”

Feedback. Translation: I am not comfortable at this pace. I am not comfortable with you moving at this pace.

“You’re too intense.”

This one is also iffy. If it is said in a way to deflect from dealing with an issue, it’s criticism. However, you can still use it as feedback. The translation could be that what is happening is overwhelming so try a different tactic.

“You’re so lazy. Why don’t you do something?”

Criticism for sure, but you can turn it into feedback by checking to see if there is any truth there. Are you idle? Do you waste time? Or are you just more relaxed and invest in meditative or restorative practices? Perhaps there is room for self improvement. Or maybe it’s another opportunity for appreciation for the things you do well and for staying true to your values.

What do you do if someone gives you feedback that you don’t want or that hurts? Say thank you. When you say thank you, you turn something negative into something positive. It opens your mind to the potential gift there. It acknowledges that whether someone wants to help or hurt, they care enough about the relationship to invest in it by giving you attention and information. If it’s truly criticism, responding with “thank you” can soften the person who gave it to you so that they may think about what they are saying and how they are saying it. Perhaps it will move them to either keep their comments to themselves next time or deliver it with a bit more softness.

If you don’t have enough information to make the criticism or feedback useful, ask for specifics. If someone says your work was “bad” ask how or what would they suggest to improve it? If someone says that your performance is sloppy, ask what he would like to see instead. If someone remarks that your cooking was just “okay” ask what they’d prefer. In the case of something subjective like cooking, there is no right way to cook something. However, knowing what someone likes is the best way to give them what they want.

Whatever you do, resist the temptation to cry, pout, or attack. Sometimes getting feedback is hurtful – especially when it is true. Sleep on it. Let the information digest. You may find it easier to accept if you give yourself a little distance.

When you begin to welcome feedback for the growth opportunities that they present, it can make even the toughest criticism easier to take. If you listen to it and use it, it can propel your growth tremendously.

And remember, if someone is pushing you to do or be better, it’s because he cares. A person who believes in your potential will invest in you. He will challenge you to do better. When you hit a target, he may urge or push you to go even further because of the strength and success that you have already shown. It’s a compliment. People don’t invest in people they don’t care about. When you show courage and progress, you may be asked to do even more because you can.

If you never get helpful suggestions, it may show a lack of confidence in your ability or your strength to hear it. So ask for it. Then be grateful when it comes. If you whine and pout when you get great feedback, it may stop coming to you. Ultimately, this makes your life harder and keeps you ignorant.

If you want to grow, adopt the belief that feedback is your greatest teacher. Welcome it. Use it. Then watch how your life blossoms.

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