Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there
November 16, 2011
In an increasingly connected and interactive world, where your customers can directly engage with you via social media, where you can measure and survey in order to take your organisation’s pulse, one essential role for us all to develop is The Open Receptive Learner. This role encapsulates those capabilities related to receiving, processing and making meaning of feedback. I’ll break my own rule about the use of the word ‘feedback’ because it is a useful shorthand, however, I still maintain my aversion to it and I still cannot seem to shake my old teacher’s suggestion that feedback is that dissonant racket that comes out of a speaker system.
It is valuable to consider this aspect of leader development and customer service because, in the Knowledge Age, the more responsive we are to all kinds of information, the better we will be at dealing with change, uncertainty, emergence and complexity. I will add that The Open Receptive Learner is but one in an interconnected and complex matrix of ‘responsiveness’ and ‘self awareness’ roles, but those other roles can be the subject of another article.
If you have a well-developed role of Open Receptive Learner, you will be comfortable hearing things about yourself that have been hitherto unknown, you will be open to the notion that there may be some truth in what others tell you about yourself and you will give their comments due consideration, you will receive feedback with curiosity rather than defensiveness and you will endeavour to synthesise feedback in a way that causes you to expand your view of yourself. What this looks and feels like: when you are enacting this role, you may respond to others’ feedback by asking further naive questions in an interested tone of voice, in order to gain greater insight into yourself; when you are enacting this role, you may notice that can ably quieten your internal voices that want to react to feedback with justification or argument; when you are in this role, you may notice your body language conveys a relaxed, yet alert, demeanour as you demonstrate genuine curiosity and interest in what the other person is saying.
We solicit feedback when we ask for it directly, when we conduct some sort of culture survey or a leadership 360 or when we invite customers to interact with us on social media. Even solicited feedback can cause us to respond out of denial, narcissism, arrogance or fear, notably when we hear something unexpected or that is less than complimentary. While it’s not ideal, it’s understandable, as we are all human and we all have an amygdala which goes off like a car alarm, unable to distinguish between real and perceived danger. Some of us have just been wired over our lives to be more vigilant than others. If this is the case, we have human technologies at our disposal to rewire this default response. What we have been learning in the last decade or so from neuroscience also tells us that we are far more ‘plastic’ than we used to believe.
What about when we receive unsolicited feedback? We use expressions like, “I felt like I was being blindsided”, “I would never have seen that coming” or “That came out of nowhere”. This is similar to when we attempt to change lanes on the motorway and suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we hear this loud honk and at the last minute, seeing where the desperate honking is coming from, swerve back into our lane to avoid a crash with the other car that did not, in fact, appear out of nowhere; we simply did not see it. This can be related to a phenomenon called inattention blindness. If you have ever seen a magician or illusionist, you will be familiar with how they use this natural tendency in order to entertain, and it is now becoming the stuff of documentary TV channels as we become increasingly interested in how our brains function and how to develop greater self awareness. The most well-known example of inattention blindness was used as a public service advertisement in the UK, trying to get drivers to become more aware of cyclists.
In essence, inattention blindness is when we are unable to see something even if it is plain sight. When combined with another human phenomenon, asymmetric insight, we will go through our lives with skewed pictures of ourselves. If we embark on a journey of self-knowledge, we will make some headway in mitigating for these cognitive distortions. However, we cannot know all there is to know about ourselves simply by developing the role of Self-Reflector. We require input from others and it is the height of arrogance to believe that information and feedback from others is to be dismissed blithely.
However, herein lies a major conundrum. If inattention blindness is the inability to see something that is in plain sight and if we all suffer from it, we can accept that it is important to be open to feedback from others. Intellectually, we can accept that there will be things about ourselves that are in plain sight, but to which we will be blind. What if, however, the thing that is in plain view of everyone except ourselves, is that we are bad at taking feedback; that our limbic fight/flight/freeze mechanism is so overpowering that we are simply not able to take in any feedback that has just the merest whiff of unpleasantness. It’s a negative loop. What if the feedback is that we are bad at taking feedback? Your emotions go from zero to 60 in an uncontrollable nano-second because your amygdala has somehow got the wrong end of the stick. It’s just information, but it’s received as a danger and you over-react. In the words of Radiohead, “Just ’cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there. We are accidents waiting to happen.” Damn limbic system.
With this in mind, how do we go about developing the (under-developed) role of Open Receptive Learner if we have already come to the firm conclusion that we are open to feedback but our defensive shields are permanently on red alert? If you believe that you are good at receiving feedback, how would you know? If your amygdala is wired such that it detects danger at the slightest hint of criticism, you will be its slave when someone attempts to say, “You are not terribly good at hearing feedback about yourself,” and it floods your body with hormones, inhibiting and distorting the ability of your neocortex to take in and process information. This essential piece of information is unlikely to get through, thereby scuppering your efforts. It’s unconscious self-sabotage.
My intention in this article is not to create despondency, rather I wish to pose a pertinent question that all of us interested in self-development must come to grips with. I believe that pondering questions such as this is not simply an intellectual exercise, rather it is exercising our self-awareness muscles. In an age when the depth and quality of our self-knowledge is so core to how we are at work, with our peers, our staff, our customers and with our communities; this is no whimsical self-indulgence. It is part of preparing ourselves for the greater uncertainty and ambiguity that characterises the Knowledge Age.
Warm up to the role of Open Receptive Learner
Here is a process that may assist you to become better at receiving feedback. If you are in a leadership position, it is probably true that the higher up the ‘food chain’ you are, the less you will know about your business and what its staff really think of you. If you are genuinely interested in knowing more about yourself and your organisation and encouraging more frank feedback to come your way, bring to mind someone you know who has this role well-developed. We’ll call this person X. You have seen them do it or they have a reputation for doing it. You hear people say things like, “I feel so comfortable telling her what I think, she is such a good listener, even when I’m saying difficult things,” or “I get a really good sense that he listens to what people tell him about his performance. He seems really interested in knowing what people think about him.”
When you are about to engage in a feedback-type conversation with someone, think to yourself, “What would X do?” and be in the role of that person. What emotional state would they likely be in, what kind of words or phrases would they use in the conversation, how would they be physically? As you develop your Open Receptive Learner, you will need to stay conscious of warming up to this role, just as you had to stay fully conscious of ‘clutch, engage gear, depress accelerator, slowly release clutch’ until driving was second nature to you.
Alternatively, if you find yourself blindsided by someone’s feedback, STOP. If you find it difficult to stop the inner voices, to keep breathing, to bring your heartbeat back to a normal rate, it could be useful to investigate mindfulness training. Practicing the discipline of mindfulness will go a long way to assisting you to gain greater self-control in your life.
As usual, I look forward to comments on this article. Go well.