President’s Column: Being a Good Communication Dance Partner

May 02, 2018

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Imagine this scenario: You are in the middle of a shift at work. Things are going well. Your patients are interesting, you’re able to keep up with what needs to be done, and colleagues are nearby to help if needed. Unexpectedly, a co-worker approaches and says, “Do you have a moment? I’d like to give you some feedback.”

Did you have a run of SVT? Your stomach plummets? Palms get sweaty?

Many of us go into panic mode at the start of a feedback conversation, even though we pride ourselves on being part of a learning profession, and feedback is an inevitable element. Skilled communication is one of the six Healthy Work Environment standards and plays a crucial role in making the other five standards possible. Every workplace provides workshops on how to deliver feedback, but opportunities to learn how to receive feedback are not as commonly available.

The truth is, we’re physiologically hardwired to go into fight or flight mode when faced with a real — or perceived — threat. Because of the primal need to survive, there are significantly more communication pathways responding to negative, potentially harmful input than pathways responding to positive, pleasant input.

Negative feedback — actual or potential — is emotionally louder than positive feedback and elicits a more powerful response. Past experiences, relationships, emotional triggers and blind spots further influence the emotions and behaviors that follow what may be perceived as criticism. Even when feedback comes from a trusted colleague and is positive, the initial response is often to prepare for the worst.

The WHY behind being able to receive feedback is obvious: It is one of the most important tools we have to help us learn and contribute to our worlds.

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, authors of “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well,” explain the neurophysiological and psychological rationale for the discomfort people experience during a feedback interaction. They offer strategies for listening to what was said, processing it and responding in a thoughtful, professional way.

  • Stop to listen. Become aware of your posture and facial expressions, and take a deep breath. This sends calming signals to the emotional centers of your brain.
  • Do not interrupt. If you’re busy coming up with a response, you’re not fully listening and may miss the heart of the message.
  • Ask clarifying questions. When they’ve finished talking, ask any clarifying questions before offering a response. This ensures you’ve heard correctly and redirects any false assumptions about intent and content.
  • Say thank you. And have compassion for the person coming forward. Not only does this show respect, it also triggers positive and quieting pathways in the brain.
  • Offer your response without becoming defensive. If you’re getting emotional, ask to take a break and return to the conversation when you’re feeling more settled.
  • Together, explore solutions. Consider how proposed solutions can be facilitated and what kind of follow-up is warranted.
  • Reflect on the feedback. What did you learn from the content of the information and the experience itself? How will this experience make you a better nurse, friend, co-worker or partner? There is always something about this type of event that will help you grow.

Receiving feedback is like being a communication dance partner. In dance, the leader and the follower must have equal skill for a well-executed performance. In communication, expertly given feedback also must be skillfully received and processed in order to build trusting relationships and healthy, thriving work environments. For every class on effectively giving feedback, there should be a second, equally as important class: elegantly receiving it.

Give me some feedback, or let me know about a time when feedback has affected you at