Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen (Thanks for the feedback, 2014) provide tools for an interactive learning experience based on the theme of identities. They define identity as follows: “Identity is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves – what we’re like, what we stand for, what we’re good at, what we’re capable of”. This interpretation is in line with Anthony Giddens (Modernity and Self-Identity, 1991) and others.

According to Stone & Heen these stories consist of labels. We try to keep these labels simple, such as “I’m competent, I’m good, I’m worthy of love. These labels serve an important function: Life can be messy and confusing, and simple identity labels remind us of our values and priorities”. These simple identity labels get us into trouble though. “They are simple because they are “all or nothing.” That works fine when we’re “all.” But when we get feedback that we are not, we hear it as feedback that we are nothing. There’s no “partly all” … If we’re not good, we’re bad”. This mechanism is an important reason why we cannot take criticism that easily and why it is hard for students to be resilient online. Online challenges, especially critical ones, seem like an attack on their entire identity.

Leonard Mlodinow (Sublimal, 2012) adds to this image of our identity an element that he calls “motivated reasoning”. This motivated reasoning helps us to “believe in our goodness and competence, to feel in control, and to generally see ourselves in a positive light. It also shapes the way we understand and interpret our environment, especially our social environment, and it helps to justify our preferred beliefs.” Motivated reasoning functions as a survival strategy: “studies show that the people with the most accurate self-perceptions tend to be moderately depressed, suffer from low self-esteem, or both. An overly positive self-evaluation, on the other hand, is normal and healthy.”

Motivated reasoning installs a range of defense mechanisms in us to fence off negative feedback. Simple labels do the rest. This is to keep us from falling in a black hole and help us to keep our identity narration going. The downside of it is that it renders us incapable of receiving negative feedback that might actually bring us further in life and might teach us something. This is an undesirable situation since it is the opposite of resilience – it is defensiveness.

To change this situation we should give up simple labels, for ourselves and for the world, and modify our motivated reasoning. But how do we do that? Stone & Heen write: “The first step is … to recognize that your identity label is a simplification. … You’ve been complicated all along.”

Stone & Heen describe a method to widen our identity label. Basically, it consists of accepting three sentences:

– Sometimes I make mistakes

– Sometimes my motivation is egoistic

– I am part of the problem

The first sentence makes sure that we understand that we are not infallible. Thus, we cannot claim to be right every time, or even this time.

The second sentence implies that we are not morally superior. We cut corners. This might be the case now too.

The third sentence ensures we cannot blame a “them” versus an innocent “us”. There is no “we” and “they”. We have to solve problems together.

The three sentences should open us up to the words and nonverbal communication of others.

The good practice here is to have instructors say the sentences out aloud, one-by-one, have the participants repeat them and ask after every sentence who disagrees.

The aim of the good practice is to open the field for a dialogue without any of the participants getting defensive at once.

The repeating of the sentences and the discussion is followed up by an analysis by the instructor. This analysis is based upon the discussion, in particular how hard it is for some participants to say one or more of the sentences and to agree with them or not.

The harder it is to say a certain sentence or the less a participant agrees with a sentence, the more likely the sentence indicates a strategy of the participant to not have to listen to feedback (infallibility, moral superiority or no responsibility).

The instructor should then ask participants who find it hard to say a certain sentence or who disagree with a sentence to what identity label this applies most. This way identity label exclusiveness can be measured.