Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Department Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education
Receiving feedback from students and observers is an important part of teaching online, but receiving unexpected negative feedback can impact an educator’s confidence and motivation. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen introduces the concept of mental models and shares three steps to help online educators build resilience to receiving negative feedback including how to consider it, remain calm and in control, and address the feedback as necessary. Learn how instructors can address the fight-flight-freeze response, explore other perspectives, and find value in all types of feedback.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m Bethanie Hansen, your host, and I’m happy to talk with you today about handling the unexpected negative feedback online faculty sometime receive.
If you receive end-of-course survey comments, this is a place where occasionally you’ll have a dissatisfied student. Hopefully you will have caught that somewhere during the class if a student reaches out with a concern or complaint, and you can address it quickly.
But sometimes a student has a concern they never bring to our attention. And it later may show up as an end-of-course survey comment we were not expecting. Likewise, a student may be unhappy and failed to reach out to us, and maybe they reach out to our supervisor, our college Dean, our principal, whoever is our manager at that time.
If you’ve ever had this experience, it can be extremely painful and it can be difficult to know whether that comment was really intended for you, especially if your intentions were super clear and you felt that you were doing a fantastic job of reaching your students.
I want to help you out today with a few strategies to manage “you” when you get some negative feedback. Once you’ve managed your thoughts and how you’re going to calm and focus to be able to deal with that feedback, then you can take a much more objective approach and find a way to do something about the feedback. Let’s go ahead and start with the first idea, which is the concept of a mental model.
Feedback is Filtered Through Mental Models
We all have our own mental models. A mental model is basically the set of assumptions, beliefs, values, and different ideas we have in our minds that we grow up with over time. We get these from our parents, our community we were growing up in as a child, as a teen, as a young adult. We also get these from school, from our faith community, from our larger community, from the country we live in, and from our cultural group.
There are so many ways that we gain all of these values, beliefs, and assumptions. And even if we have the same background as someone else, ours may be a bit different for various reasons. It’s important to know that you and I each have a mental model. Your mental model means that when you receive a comment from someone, or feedback, it may be perceived in a certain way by you, and if I saw the same exact comment, I might perceive it a totally different way.
We can infer what a person means when we have a mental model and we also suggest to ourselves some way that it’s going to impact us, and this all happens super fast. Our brains are like superhighways. They conduct information with lightning speed, and one of the reasons we don’t notice our assumptions, biases, values, and beliefs coming into play is that our brain sets a pattern for us. It likes to automate things to give us efficiency and save us time and energy. So those same thoughts and ideas will pop in and be the filter through which we process new information.
When we get student comments or it could even be a performance review comment from someone who has evaluated us or observed us, but may disagree with something we did or perceive it some way that they did not like, we might get some negative comments there. We can find ourselves flaring up a little bit to resist that feedback, especially if it does not align with what we intended or what we believe to be happening.
Given that idea of mental models, I’m first going to talk today about why we resist negative feedback, what really stands in the way of our receiving it, and then once we’ve had that response to negative feedback such as the resistance, the pushing back, the reconsidering or maybe even arguing with the feedback, we can find a way to instead be receptive to the feedback.
After all, when someone gives us feedback we may not like or it may be very negative, it does not necessarily mean it is true feedback. Although it may be, it also doesn’t mean it has to impact us negatively. We can accept that their observation is a certain way.
We can accept what they’ve had to say to us, and we can also integrate it into our learning without it negatively impacting us. We’ll go ahead and start with some of the barriers that pop up when we get feedback that we don’t agree with or don’t like, that first idea.
Consider Barriers that Prevent Us from Receiving Feedback
Let’s think about what feedback really is to us. Feedback is just a reflection of what we’re doing. It might be a reflection that has passed through someone else’s mental filters, and maybe it reflects their value system or their beliefs. It may be objective. It may be even just nature. After all, the world around us gives us lots and lots of feedback.
For example, if you have plants you’re growing in your garden and they grow up healthy and green and lush and produce flowers or fruit as they should, nature’s giving you feedback about what you’re doing with that plant. At the same time, if you plant the little seedlings or the plants in the garden and you don’t water them, the plants either won’t grow or they’ll start to wither. And nature is again giving us feedback about whether we’re being successful at our goal.
Another example could be if we want to go exercise and build some muscle, our new gym routine can be effective, and the feedback is going to be the mirror or how we feel physically or how we look. Maybe we want to change our diet, eat something different. Feedback from the scale, feedback from the way our clothing fits us, these things are all feedback. Feedback is everywhere.
It has so many benefits and most importantly gives us the understanding of where we are and how we’re doing. Sometimes it’s completely factual. Sometimes it’s passing through someone’s filter. But either way it is new information that we need to adjust and learn, adapt and thrive. If feedback is so helpful why is it that we resist it when it’s negative or when it’s unexpected or both, when it’s unexpected and negative?
There are a lot of things that come up when we have unexpected negative feedback. First of all, we can take it personally. Our first thought might be that it’s an attack on our character. It might feel like a judgment, accusation, or blame. Or it might even seem like criticism.
It’s very difficult to refute criticism, it comes from out of nowhere. In our minds, we think because we weren’t the person observing it or formulating that criticism, it also might represent only one side of things. It might ignore your efforts and intentions or not know about them, and the feedback might be delivered poorly or be vague or without context.
On the other hand, we might see feedback as really being about the other person. It might be about their desire to give us some information and manipulate us in some way. Sometimes we see feedback as intentionally thwarting our growth or progress or success or something like that. Maybe we don’t value the credibility of the person giving the feedback. We might even think the feedback is totally untrue, incomplete, or conflicting with what we value most or what we’re trying to achieve.
All of these barriers are the thoughts we are having, and if we get back to that idea that we started with today—mental models—we have these inner assumptions about all those kinds of ideas, and we’re putting them through our own filter. We’re thinking basically about where the other person is coming from, or where their information has come from.
These mental shortcuts we make, or we call them cognitive heuristics or biases, these thoughts happen so fast we’re unaware. Today, we’re going to introduce the idea of slowing down, of taking a little break and also pausing to recognize what we are really thinking and what our emotions might be.
Step 1: Focus on Calming Your Thoughts and Emotions
I like to start that idea with you as a metaphor. Think about a brick wall, how firm and steady it appears. The brick wall doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. It could be knocked down in an earthquake or a major tornado or something like that, but for all intents of this discussion today, the brick wall is permanent. It’s firm, immovable, and sometimes we are like a brick wall when we get the feedback we don’t like or we disagree with or maybe is unexpected.
Try the metaphor of flowing like water with the information.
Let’s think about Bruce Lee. He said: empty your mind. He explained that a person should be formless or shapeless, like water. When you put water into a cup it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Lee went on to say “water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
Let’s get an image of that water just flowing as a river. It goes around things, it continues its path and sometimes even erodes them, making a new way for itself. It might flow through things. Whatever it does, the water adjusts to the object. It adapts and finds a way forward.
So our first task when we get unexpected negative feedback is to pause and calm our thoughts and emotions. We need to move from a state of resistance, like the brick wall where we are unable to respond in very many ways, we just have one response. And we need to become calm, so we’re much more aware and much more capable of developing creative responses in many directions.
Try strategies that interrupt your thoughts and provide sensory input.
The body must be calm in order for us to think clearly. Each of these ideas can help us calm down. Recognize what you’re feeling. Change of scenery, that might mean you need to go somewhere else just to get a break. Physical activity or exercise. Journaling or reflecting about your thoughts and emotions.
Practice positivity. Focus on what you can control. Express gratitude. And something I like to call the 90-second rule.
Remember the 90-second rule.
It’s been researched, and we know that the emotions are triggered by chemicals in the brain that pass through the body, and they are processed literally in 90 seconds.
When we have a strong emotion, if we allow the thought to just sit there and maybe even pass out of our mind, if we don’t entertain it, dive into it, dig into that story, just let the thought pass, in 90 seconds the emotions that we’re feeling are going to calm. That strong physical response that goes with the emotion.
When we have a threat, our brain really does what the primitive brain did years and years ago when a saber tooth tiger would come as a threat. We perceive some unexpected thing as a similar threat, even though it’s not going to kill us like a saber tooth tiger might.
Our body responds with those chemicals from the brain shooting cortisol through the body for the stress and we go into a fight, flight, or freeze mode. It is nearly impossible to think clearly and to really hear the feedback in order to consider it, when we’re in this physical state. There are so many ways to pause and calm our thoughts and emotions. I’ve already mentioned a few ideas, but one other I’d had like to give you today is to find something I like to call blue sky spaces.
Identify and connect with your blue sky spaces.
Blue sky spaces are those places that are unique to you. They might not be calming or amazing to me or anyone else, but you have your own personal places that you like to go. My example is Boulder Lake, which is a place in Idaho where when we backpack into Boulder Lake, it’s very peaceful and beautiful. And everyone feels safe and happy there, when my family goes in. So for me, a blue sky space would be thinking about Boulder Lake or going to Boulder Lake.
You might have people in whose presence you feel very open and very much like your best self. You might have those physical places or activities that create a responsiveness within you. Or you might have books, passages, quotes, poems or art. Maybe even music that helps you be open, responsive and able to return to your best mental state.
Think about what your blue sky spaces might be. I’d like to encourage you to make a list of those so that when you have some unexpected negative event happen and you get into that fight, flight, or freeze mode, you can look at those items on the list and engage with them.
Think about them. Maybe even go to those people or places or read those quotes or listen to that music and help yourself get reoriented back to where you want to be, to be in control of what you do next.
Express your thoughts and feelings by journaling.
Another idea is to journal. I mentioned that before, but journaling would be basically a three-step idea, describe the experience what you’re immediately reacting with, how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking. Interpret what it means to you initially, so even before you have a chance to really think through the negative feedback. What are your real interpretations of this right now?
And then, lastly, what you think your next steps might be. And in this case, I would suggest the next steps are about calming and starting to think more deeply about the feedback. At this stage, you are not ready to respond to the feedback it’s more about what is possible now in thinking about it. And how can you get more perspective? Or what can you learn to take a better look at that feedback?
Step 2: Get Perspective
As you think about getting perspective, once you’ve calmed the body and opened yourself up to being able to think about many options, there is a really great tool called the Johari window, which has basically four squares. It’s a quadrant-oriented image, and on one side we have things that we know about ourselves or things we don’t know about ourselves, but they are unknown to other people outside of ourselves, and on the other side we have things that are known about ourselves some of them are also known to us and some of them are not.
In one quadrant we have the hidden self, which is the information you know about yourself and no one else does. I like to say that that’s usually your private habits and thoughts.
Then you have your open self, and this is information about you that both you and others know about you. That would be like, if I’m a piano player and I go to a community meeting, a school or church event, and I play my piano, then both I and other people know that I’m a piano player. That’s part of my open self.
And then we have the unknown self, which is information about you that neither you nor others know. And this unknown self could be untapped potential, maybe hidden beliefs we hold that we haven’t realized that we hold.
And then lastly, we have the blind self, which is information others know about us but which we don’t know. And in that blind self we have those blind spots. Like sometimes the hidden self has the effort, the intention behind our teaching. And then we get into the blind self, where someone else is observing the teaching, and what they are seeing is the other side of things. The impact of what we’re trying to do.
We might actually not know the impact of what we’re doing in the classroom sometimes. And an observer might notice it. So we may get feedback from students, from supervisors, peers, all kinds of sources about that blind self that we’re not as aware of. And one of the reasons it can feel so negative and hurt us so much is that were kind of living in the space of the hidden self. We’re thinking a lot about our efforts and our intentions. We’re not always able to see the impact as clearly.
This tool is an excellent framework to help us gain perspective. So once we’ve calmed our body and our mind, and we’ve come to a space of being open to the feedback, we can take a look at those four quadrants in the Johari window tool. And we can see where is the feedback coming from? Where might I have more information, and where could I gain some new information?
Step 3: Find the Transforming Gift in Negative Feedback
The last step I want to share with you today on dealing with negative feedback that might be unexpected is to use these tools to transform what we do.
We can take new perspectives and new learning. We can consider what is within our control to change and if we would like to change something about it. We can also ask ourselves, where do we have choice?
If the feedback is reasonable and we believe it to be true we can easily adapt and make the changes needed. If we don’t believe it to be true we can investigate. We can ask a lot more questions.
In any case, when we get feedback there is always a gift in the feedback. We’re learning something about the others who gave us the feedback, even if they remain anonymous. We can act on the new awareness that we have about ourselves and about others. We can make small adjustments, big adjustments, try something totally new. Whatever it is, feedback is a great source of information for us.
Again it does not mean it’s always true or 100% accurate, and in some cases negative feedback may be very concerning if it’s not something we consider to be true. You might find yourself needing to have a serious conversation with the person who gave the feedback if you do disagree. If you need to do that, you’re going to be able to do it a lot easier from a place of calm and control, such as going through that process of really getting to a blue sky space and thinking about the various perspectives involved.
Think about what happened around the time you got the feedback that might’ve provoked the feedback. What was important about the feedback? And what was important about what you are trying to do? Whether you are living your values or meeting your goals in your job, where you could use the feedback in the future, if it does apply? And you could generalize that to some new approach you are going to try a new method. Where could you use this again, and do you see a pattern in the feedback?
This is particularly important if you ever get a negative comment that you seriously disagree with from a student in an end-of-course survey. You might get one of those comments and be thinking, how could that student possibly think that? But if you see a similar comment the next time you teach the class, you’re going to start seeing a pattern and know that it’s likely true. That students are perceiving things in a certain way.
You can also evaluate with this feedback and consider how well you did, what worked, and what you need to improve. There’s always an implied positive in feedback. If we’re focused on one thing, we’re not focused on other things. You can step back and reflect on your practice and consider all the many things that are going right and what you’re doing very well. Especially when you think about it in context of unexpected negative feedback.
Negative feedback can feel overwhelming to deal with. It’s not designed to destroy you. Well it could be, I suppose, if there’s someone out to get you. But I don’t think most of your students are, and it’s very unlikely that you have a huge fan club trying to tear you down.
At the same time, it may feel larger-than-life if you’re ignoring the 99.9% of all that you’re doing that is going fabulously well. So another step would be to think about what you can do next. What you’re going to plan, and also how you’re going to bring more awareness to all of those things you’re doing well. And celebrate what is going right in light of getting feedback.
As we close out our podcast today, I hope you’ll think about the steps you might take to prepare for the possibility that we all have of getting unexpected negative feedback, especially in an end-of-course student surveys. When we work online, we don’t always see what a student is asking for. Hopefully they have been direct and they’ve gotten what they needed, but it is possible that they don’t have their needs met and they may give you negative feedback.
If that happens, the last few questions I would like to suggest just bringing to mind is asking:
- What impact do I have that others may be seeing, but of which I might be unaware?
- How is that person experiencing me in the online classroom?
- What is that person’s real need, challenge, or objective that I might be missing?
- What does that other person value?
- What are my blind spots?
And then, in contrast, remember what is going right? What am I doing incredibly well? What is going well that I could even take to the next level of excellence?
Balancing negative feedback with an approach to handling it and being able to decide whether or not you need to act on it, seeing it clearly through others’ eyes to understand where it’s coming from, and also acknowledging all that is going right, these are things that will all help you in managing your own response if you receive negative feedback at the end of a course or at the end of the year.
Thank you for being here and for all you do to help students in their online learning adventure. Best wishes to you in your online teaching this week, and in processing any feedback that you receive.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.