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Receiving feedback

AL UDEID AIR BASE, QATAR -- So, the new Air Force Feedback forms went live on 1 July. Now what? In my professional military education experiences, we spent a lot of time talking about how to give feedback. Among the many techniques that were briefed to me, several even stuck: Be specific. Be consistent. Make an appointment so you don't have distractions during the feedback session. Clear your desk. Focus on where you think the individual should be developmentally. These are all great things. However, I can't remember ever learning how to receive feedback on my performance.

Let's face it. Some of us are not good at receiving constructive criticism. Even those that have been through countless 5-hr flight debriefs where the minutia of every decision made was scrutinized suddenly get nervous or defensive when receiving feedback on our overall performance. It's somehow more personal. There are higher stakes. We know that the feedback is not just related to a single mission or event, but an aggregate of what we've done for a period of time and may contain insight or recommendations about career progression. Or maybe you're the Airman who has been fighting for feedback, only to find that your supervisor doesn't see you the way that you think he or she does.

I didn't receive a critical feedback session until I was a senior captain, about to pin on major. It was only the second actual, sit-down feedback session that I had ever received. My flight commander was a very thorough Weapons School Graduate. When he scheduled the feedback with me, I expected the same 10 min discussion about PME and assignments that I had gotten from previous supervisors. This supervisor actually took the time to go through my flying gradebooks and OPRs, carefully consider my strengths and weaknesses, and write down a thorough assessment of what he thought I needed to do to succeed. And you know what? I. Was. Mortified. I can still remember sitting in the seat opposite his desk as he detailed every single section, my face getting red with embarrassment for having my faults put on display. I was completely unprepared to receive his carefully devised feedback. To this day, I'm not really sure what he said, but my OPR was pretty good, so it must not have been all bad. If I had a magic time machine, I would go back to that room on that day and listen more closely and with an open mind (of course, I would use the time machine to do a lot of cooler things first, but eventually I would get back to that room and listen).

So that brings us to today. We are now using the new AF Forms 931, 932, and 724 for feedback. Pretty much everyone in the Air Force has read them or received a brief on them, so I won't go into the details on what's on the form. Suffice it to say, the new process requires a lot more discussion between the rater and ratee, and has very detailed measures of performance for both personal and professional conduct. As a ratee, make sure you do your part to fill it out before the feedback session. From there, how do you prepare for face-to-face feedback? Especially if it's your first honest-to-goodness sit-down feedback? Glad you asked. Here are a few tips:

1. Be ok with being awkward. It's going to feel weird to go over all 41 of the items on the Form 931 and 932 (34 items on the AF 724 for officers). That's ok, just roll with it and move on.

2. Have an open mind. No one is perfect. No one. Each of us does a hundred things a day that could have been done better. The goal of feedback is to improve performance, so go in to the meeting expecting to hear ways you can (wait for it) improve your performance. This is the Air Force, not the Bro Force. You should be told that there are things you didn't do well. Which leads to...

3. Don't take it personally. This is the hardest part for almost everyone (it certainly was for me). Feedback, if delivered correctly, provides specific assessments of performance, not of the person. It may feel like a blow to your ego if you hear something negative; work to get past the ego and figure out how to improve. One technique experts recommend to help emotionally distance yourself from the feedback is to pretend that you are in the room hearing the feedback being given to someone else.

4. Ask questions, but don't argue. If you start getting defensive, then feedback on performance turns into accusations and justifications. If the feedback contains a factual error, ask your supervisor to schedule a second session to address that specific issue after you have a chance to gather data.

5. Accept Praise. You'll hear some good things, too. Say "Thank You," tuck that away in your brain for later. Call your Mom and tell her about the praise you received. She'll love it and you'll bank some points for later when you forget her birthday while you're deployed.

6. Give feedback on the feedback. At the end of the session, let your supervisor know how he/she did. Were all your concerns addressed? Do you have any lingering questions? If you feel that the feedback was directed at your person and not at your performance, let your supervisor know in a professional manner.

7. Take a deep breath. You survived. Let everything you heard simmer for a day or two, take your feedback form back out and re-examine it and use it to become even better at what you do.