The art of receiving feedback as a fellow

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published June 23, 2023

Key Takeaways

Throughout your training from medical school through fellowship, you are constantly assessed by everyone around you—from formal reviews from your attendings and fellows, to informal patient feedback or comments from nursing staff.

Growing thick skin to survive constructive (and sometimes destructive) criticism is necessary, but so is understanding the “art” of receiving feedback. 

Feedback can be an excellent tool if it is given and received appropriately. 

Whether positive or negative, feedback leads to growth

Many doctors in training may not realize early on in their careers that there is an “art” to receiving feedback.

This feedback can benefit you tremendously if you allow it, even if it is not the glowing review you were hoping for.

And believe it or not, once you finish your fellowship and enter practice, you may find yourself yearning for the regular feedback and advice you received during your training programs. 

Related: Didactic training v clinical training—how each serves the medical fellow

Defining feedback

Feedback in fellowship is a tool to encourage learning, growth, and improvement. Feedback is often viewed as written or oral comments about your performance as a fellow. However, informal feedback can be discussions over lunch, remarks in the operating room, or lines of questioning during rounds. All are valuable.

"Often, fellows (and residents) may not even be aware they’re receiving feedback, since informal feedback is not as black-and-white as a formal written review. "

Kristen Fuller, MD

Why do fellows struggle with receiving feedback?

Feedback frequently holds the negative connotation that we, as trainees, did something wrong.[] It is often dispensed in a disciplinary setting, and unfortunately, many attendings and program directors are not poised to give constructive feedback in a healthy manner. As a result, the art of giving feedback is just as important as the art of receiving feedback. 

Related: Expert perspective: Maintaining mental health during the rigors of fellowship

Feedback can make us feel small, unworthy, or incapable, so we often turn against it. Additionally, fellows, residents, and medical students are never formally taught “how to receive and handle feedback.”

Receiving feedback in a healthy and helpful manner is essential in a stressful environment such as a fellowship, with the many different and demanding personalities and high standards.

It starts with the 'art' of listening

The first step in learning how to gracefully receive feedback is to learn how to listen. 

Fellows often mistake hearing for listening. Hearing is a passive action, but listening is an active process that involves taking the time to understand what a person is saying without passing judgment.

Listening to advice or feedback in fellowship means listening to understand rather than reacting. When we take the time to actively listen and process the words, we are less likely to misinterpret what is being said. 

Who is providing the feedback?

Another important aspect of feedback is assessing who is providing it. Is it someone you admire? Is it someone important? Is it someone with the best intentions? Are they qualified to give feedback? Do they understand the entire situation as it relates to the feedback they are providing? 

A crucial part of receiving and reflecting on feedback is filtering who is giving the feedback. This may not be as straightforward as you may imagine. 

For example, which feedback is more helpful? Feedback from your program director, with whom you only interacted once or twice, or an attending who you round with daily? Of course, you want to be respectful of your program director and receive the feedback gracefully, but you may take more stock in the feedback from your attending, as they spend more time with you.

The person providing the feedback and how they are providing it is important when it comes time for reflection.

Feedback should not be taken personally

Often, we are our own worst critics. As a result, we may take objective feedback personally, as if the individual providing the feedback is attacking our character. Instead, the focus of giving and receiving good feedback should not be about who you are as a person, but rather about what you have done. 

Make time for reflection

After receiving feedback, you have the power to openly discuss and clarify what you have received.

Reflecting on feedback is one of the most important and commonly overlooked aspects of the art of receiving feedback.

These discussions can provide insight, expose blind spots, and speak to your teachability. One of the most important characteristics of physician-trainees is their teachability. Instructors will positively view your efforts to digest feedback and make any necessary adjustments in response.

You can ask specific questions, not only to the person providing feedback but also to yourself. For example, how can this feedback help you in other aspects of your life? Should you seek other opinions? Should this feedback change how you provide patient care or how you face challenges? It may take some time to find answers to these questions, but they can positively impact your development as a physician. 

What this means for you

Providing the best standard of care to your patients means receiving feedback gracefully and having the courage to learn, adapt, and grow positively. Practice active listening by tempering reactions and responses, and taking the time to reflect on the feedback you have received from your teachers, peers, and patients. It’s good to remember, however, that not all feedback is created equal—an instructor’s constructive comments on your work are more helpful than negative comments shared emotionally from patients or peers. 

Read Next: Acing the real test: Your interview into fellowship
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