Identity Triggers: Who Tells Your Story?

Several factors can cause us to reject instantaneously the feedback we receive. Sometimes the feedback strikes us as off-base, incorrect, or uniformed, causing a truth trigger. Other times we think their opinions or preconceptions of us are unfairly coloring their observations, causing a relationship trigger.

And then there are times where what you are told violates a core belief you have about yourself. We call our reaction to this an identity trigger. What the other person is saying feels fundamentally wrong to you because it denies an aspect of your own identity.

For me, identity triggers are the most difficult to overcome when receiving feedback. They feel offensive, regardless of how well-phrased or well-intentioned they may be. This makes it all the more important to prepare to receive this feedback appropriately, as there is almost always something valuable that can be gained from it.

What helps more than anything, in my experience, is to remember that it’s possible for your core identity to be correct AND for the feedback to be valid.

How can this be? Humans are narrative-driven. When people give us feedback, they take their observations and automatically translate them into a story about what happened. Observations are facts, but the story is inference. In many cases, it’s the inference rather than the observation that conflicts with your identity.

Let’s examine a case where valid feedback ran counter to someone’s identity. Allow me to share my story from Saturday at Grand Prix Las Vegas.

The Feedback

I was in charge of head judging the 12pm Legacy Double-Up tournament. We had ~156 players for the event. After delivering my opening announcements, I received the following feedback from multiple sources:

“You need to learn to use your diaphragm.”
“You still need to learn how to project.”

This feedback bothered me. Why?

The Context

I was trained as a classical singer. I have both spoken and sung in multiple shows. I have performed without the need for a microphone on numerous stages in large halls for reasonably sized audiences. Being told to learn things that I already knew how to do produced an identity trigger. And it hurt.

It was important to realize that these people did not know of my background, nor did they know of the events leading up to these moments.

My shift the previous day had been from noon to 11pm. After I’d finished that shift, I realized I had to make a choice. I could either have fun with friends I rarely see, or I could be responsible and go immediately to bed. My next shift had started at 10am. For better or worse, I chose the former over the latter. There were consequences to that decision. Where we went was loud, and to be heard involved exerting one’s voice to an unhealthy level.

The morning of my head judge announcements, my voice was tired and I knew it. So why didn’t I ask for help doing my announcements, knowing I would be less effective?

The answer is simple. Pride.

“I should be fine,” I thought. “I’ve been trained; I can overcome this and prove that I know what I’m doing.” I believed that asking for help was admitting that I’m not good enough, that I’m incapable of handling problems on my own.

Pride makes us do really stupid things.

The Resolution

Just as I needed to swallow my pride to set my event up for success, we must sometimes swallow our pride for us to embrace feedback properly, even when it triggers our identities. Without doing so, we blind ourselves to the legitimacy of the message and never consider its value.

Because I already knew how to use my diaphragm and project, the feedback that I needed to learn these things induced a feeling of incompetence. As a result, I felt as though I were being called incompetent.

But is that what they were saying?

Literally? Close to yes. In reality? No, not at all.

They were telling a story from their observations. They observed that some players couldn’t hear my announcements and that my announcements sounded like shouting rather than proper projection. These were important facts for me to hear. If I’d dismissed the feedback as obviously incorrect because of my training and experience, I would’ve missed the critical information being communicated.

In a vacuum the feedback was good. Many other judges have been difficult to hear, and similar feedback has helped them improve. When judges observe a common problem, it’s easy to jump straight from observation to solution. However, this shortcut overlooks interpretation and confirmation, two key components of effective feedback.  

When feedback contradicts our ideas about ourselves, it’s difficult to believe that the source of the feedback means well. But we benefit by operating under the assumption that people want to build us up rather than to tear us down.

It would be amazing if everyone communicated their observations and involved you in the interpretation. But that expectation is unrealistic. Instead, be willing to initiate that conversation to uncover the value in the feedback. Look for your common ground. If you think someone has the story wrong, give them the missing pieces and rebuild the story together.

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