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Feedback: Signals around and within us

How do you know when you’re doing well, or when you need to improve? What information do you use as a measure of your success? What are you relying upon as an indicator of what to do next? What are your sources of feedback?

When we turn to friends or colleagues for advice, we are in many ways asking for feedback — we are asking for a perspective that we may not have considered which we can then internalize to help inform a next step.

In our annual performance reviews, we give and receive feedback. Sometimes this is a “corrective” process or it can also be a developmental appraisal, and in both cases it is intended to inform future behaviour. Continue doing this. Stop doing that. Do this more. Do that less. Try it this way.

Feedback is information that helps guide our future behaviour

But just what is feedback? At its essence, feedback is about outputs and inputs in a system. The concept itself has its origins in engineering systems and economic theory:

Feedback occurs when outputs of a system are routed back as inputs as part of a chain of cause-and-effect that forms a circuit or loop. The system can then be said to feed back into itself. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feedback

In the case of human behaviour, feedback is often evaluative in nature, i.e. it is an assessment made with a value judgment of good/bad, right/wrong, better/worse. But feedback can also be a neutral observation or a statement of fact which we then interpret and, through our interpretation, assign a value judgment.

When we give or receive feedback with another person, the system consists of those involved in this exchange of information. Both people interpret what they hear, assign a value judgment about the information being shared, determine what they deem to be useful, and then adjust their future behaviour to suit.

But the system can also be a closed loop where we pick up a signal and assign a value judgment ourselves.

One of the most overlooked sources of feedback available to us all is what our body tells us

Our nervous system is constantly receiving sensory signals: sights, sounds, physical sensations such as heat, cold, touch. Our body receives signals all the time. Whether we notice these signals, though, is a matter of perception. And what we do in response is a result of what the signal makes us feel, how we interpret this into a thought, and then what we decide to do as a resulting action.

For example, take two sensations that you have experienced before:

  • increased heart rate
  • shortness of breath

These are neutral signals — a change in your heart rate and breathing could be objectively measured, and whether this is good or bad, positive or negative, is a matter of context and interpretation.

An increase in heart rate and shortness of breath are common signals of a stress response, but what is the source of stress? Is this a negative stress induced by fear or a positive stress coming from excitement?

Signals are always around and within us. The opportunity is to listen, interpret, and make meaning of the signals available to us.

How can we make the most of the feedback available to us?

Consider the system. Feedback can be an exchange of information between people, but feedback can also be you as an individual paying attention to signals around and within you.

What are the signals around you? What is happening within?

Consider your interpretation. Remember feedback is just output and input. The meaning you attach to the signal is based on the context and your own interpretation.

How are you interpreting the signal? What value are you assigning to the information you are receiving? What might be another way of interpreting the same information?

Consider what signals you might be missing. Each one of us as individuals is also a system. We are biological beings and our signals can come from within. Our emotions are signals. Our physical sensations of hunger, pain, discomfort, satiation, relaxation — these are all forms of feedback.

What signal is your body sending you? What does feedback within yourself look like?

Consider your feedback loop. Sensations, feelings, thoughts, and insights can all be fleeting, and so too can words of advice, guidance, or feedback received from others. Without deliberate attention, it is easy for the signals to pass us right by.

How might you create your own feedback loop? What practice can you create to recall, record, and reflect on the feedback around and within you?

Feedback is information that helps us become aware of an opportunity for change — a snapshot of our current state compared to a different future state, information about where we are relative to where we could be. Whether direct or indirect, external or internal, feedback takes many forms and there are signals around us all the time. What feedback are you paying attention to?