Probably the best piece of dialogue from the movie Shrek is this:

Shrek: Ogres are like onions.
Donkey: They stink?
Shrek: Yes. No.
Donkey: Oh, they make you cry.
Shrek: No.
Donkey: Oh, you leave em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin’ little white hairs.
Shrek: No. Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.
Donkey: Oh, you both have layers. Oh. You know, not everybody likes onions.

Now try substituting Ogres with Feedback. Sometimes feedback stinks and occasionally it might make you cry (and certainly not everybody likes it), but feedback also has layers. Feedback is an absolutely wonderful instrument that helps us become who we want to be (in business, this is widely acknowledged: marketers and HR often pay big money to obtain feedback). However, unfortunately, all too often we turn it into this medieval torture instrument of pain. I would like to offer a different perspective on feedback, introducing yet another onion model, the onion model of feedback. If dealing with feedback is giving you a head ache, I encourage you to give this a try. This model deals with the different misconceptions we have about feedback, peeling off the layers of feedback in a way that helps, not hurts.

onion model of feedback

 The Peel: Acknowledging.

Quite often, feedback is confused with (constructive or not so constructive) criticism or advice. While both these things are feedback, feedback is in fact much more broad. The term feedback consists of two parts: feed and back. And that’s all it is: it’s words, body language or behaviour (feed) in response (back) to something we say or do. This is crucial. It means feedback is not only something that is actively told. Emotional reactions, such as crying, screaming or calling you names? That’s feedback! Averted eyes or leaning in? Definitely feedback. Even leaning back is feedback. But wait… does that mean you have to take responsibility for others’ emotions? Luckily, this is not the case. The next step of the model helps you determine what part of feedback is for you to deal with.

Layer 1: detangling shape from content.

Any kind of feedback has two parts: a part that says something about you and a part that says something about the person who provides (not gives, exactly, since a lot of feedback people provide is unconscious) you with the feedback. These two parts are Content and Shape.

Shape always says something about the person providing the feedback. An emotional response on their side (such as shouting or crying) says nothing about you. Rather, it says something about the way THEY deal with the situation. If they give feedback in a calm and conscious way, this says something about them too. It’s the same if they shy away, or show aggression, or exhibit any other kind of behavior. All of that is about them, or their issues, or their confidence. Since shape is not about you, it’s not relevant for you and it’s best to get rid of it as soon as you can.

Content, on the other hand, is always about YOU. It provides you with a mirror: it shows you how your behavior affects the other person. For example, if someone is not looking you in the eyes, you might conclude that something in the way you have behaved scares them (please note that this does not imply you have to adjust your behaviour, we’ll get to that in the following layer).

A good way to detangle shape from content is by rewriting the situation as if it were a polite, strictly verbal conversation. The message that remains after rewriting the situation is the CONTENT. It lets you know how someone feels about something you do. The combination of things you had to strip to get to this content is the SHAPE. It says something about the other person and is strictly their responsibility.

Sounds simple enough, but this can be quite tricky. Consider the following situation: you are late and running to catch the bus. Unfortunately, you trip and accidentally bump into someone else. This person aggressively shoves you back, calling you a clumsy piece of ****. While you might consider this overreaction (I know I would), it’s also feedback. But what part is shape and what part is content? Both the shoving and the name calling are shape and content at the same time, even though the first part is strictly not verbal, while the other is verbal. Let’s detangle this through rewriting! In this case, the feedback provider might have said something like this: “I experience a discomfort from the fact that you are in my personal space. Also, I did not appreciate our body contact. It hurt. I believe if you had better body coordination this type of situation could be avoided.” This is the message that says something about how your behaviour affects the other. The emotional stuff, such as the shoving and cursing? Those don’t say a thing about you.

Now that we’ve learned to spot the content, it’s time to move on to the next step: the filtering of irrelevant feedback.

Layer 2: filtering irrelevant feedback

After peeling off the shape layer, it’s time to peel off the layer of feedback that you won’t act upon. Wait, is that allowed? Of course! In trainings you will often learn to thank for feedback and then act on it. This approach assumes all feedback helps you grow, which is impossible, for one simple reason: you can only move forward in ONE direction, but you will get feedback from very different people, each with their own sense of direction. Since feedback is often contradictory, acting on it would cause you to try and please everyone, ending up utterly unhappy and losing yourself in the process.

So how to determine whether you have to act on the feedback? Interestingly, in order to do that, first you have to forget about the feedback and those who provided you with it. Instead – and I know this sounds much easier said than done – think of your goals. For example, think of where you want to be in ten years. Think of the story you want to tell with your life. Then, determine what you need to accomplish this. What traits do you need? What behaviour? And what traits and actions would hurt your case? Take your time to determine this. You don’t actually have to do this every single time you get feedback; just doing this once, creating a comprehensive image of who and where you want to be, is enough.

Once you have a comprehensive image of your goals, compare them to the feedback you have received. Do they align? Will acting on a particular piece of feedback help you reach your goals? Or will it be counterproductive? For example, working on less day dreaming might be very helpful if you want to work on your career in the corporate world, but much less so if you want to develop your creativity.  The trick in this step is to look broadly. For example, at first glance, working on your body coordination might not seem helpful if you want a career in politics, but if you work in a culture where body contact is not encouraged, not being able to control your body and literally bumping into others might hurt your goals.

As a rule of thumb, act on feedback that helps you reach your goals and don’t act on feedback that works against it. When it comes to feedback that doesn’t really matter, you can go either way, just follow your gut feeling.

Getting to the core: roadmap to the new you

Okay, so, we’ve peeled off the skin and acknowledged the feedback. We have stripped it of its emotional part, leaving the actual message exposed. We have compared this message with our own aspirations and determined if we want to act. Now comes the final part: creating a roadmap for action. Baby steps does it: it’s almost impossible to change overnight. Rather, create milestones that will help you on your way. It’s called a roadmap for a reason. It’s a road. It’s a trip. You don’t have to nail it all in one go. You’re allowed to make mistakes (you’re always allowed to make mistakes).  Just put one foot in front of the others and steadily move forward, keeping your eyes on your destination. You won’t only reach your goal. You will also enjoy getting there!