Why is feedback so hard?
“This is the best tool yet.” said my client.
As a people pleaser, I wondered, “Why didn’t I just give them the feedback formula to start?” Then I realized, to deliver stellar feedback you must first practice three foundational skills.
Feedback in its best form is a conversation. For a conversation to happen, we must have an open mind, listen to understand, and be able to digest both our inner experience and understand what might be at play for another.
Otherwise, we are two people monologuing about our perspectives on life and never intersecting, being impacted by the other, or transforming the way we see the world.
Most of us enter feedback with a goal to give someone advice, information, or an assessment of a behavior. One person in a position of power – I know/have something you do not. Even if it is just an opinion or an idea about their blind spot – not many people liked to be surprised. This makes the relationship off balance at the start and people get defensive. They are already one down.
When we are feeling picked on, called out, or surprised, response patterns get triggered in our body. We then revert to our habits of thought, mood, and action. When we react, our brain goes on autopilot. Effectively cutting off access to our pre-frontal cortex – the place where we make logical decisions and take thoughtful action. We close our mind. This is a terrible place to begin a learning process.
To have an open mind, means to go into a feedback conversation with the intention to learn and be curious, not tell or teach. This takes an examination of our mindset. The first foundational leadership skill.
If we enter the conversation to learn, our affect is different than if we enter to tell. We can guise telling as offering and helping, but we all know the difference. Intention lives in the body. It is felt.
When I have some advice for my daughter, she knows it before I even open my mouth. When I give advice to a friend, I can tell when it goes over the line from helpful to pedantic. Therefore, understanding the difference between a telling mindset – and how that happens in our body – and a learning mindset – and how that happens in our body – is vital to our success.
Try it now. Pretend you are going to tell someone about something they were doing right or wrong. Give them a piece of advice. How do you shape yourself? What do you tell yourself?
Now, pretend you are entering a conversation to learn. To be curious about what you don’t know about someone. How do you shape yourself now? What is the story in your mind?
These two states feel different. I am softer when I am curious. Closed off when I am telling. Other people can feel this. We all have a part of our brain that knows how to interpret actions without words. The work of Paul Eakman and others has shown that most facial expressions are universal. We can communicate sadness, anger, fear, or happiness without ever speaking. We can also communicate telling versus curious.
To give quality feedback, we must know how to listen. Listening to reply is very different than listening to understand. When we listen to understand we are naturally curious. We ask genuine questions that inquire about another.
When we listen to reply, we have the answer in our head and ask questions that validate our assumptions. This is a great recipe for helping people become defensive.
If a person perceives you are unaware or disrespectful of their perspective, they will actively avoid, resist, or undermine anything you suggest. They get defensive and are not receptive to feedback.
If we want people to be receptive to feedback, to remain open and curious – the best state for feedback to be beneficial – we must listen to understand. This is the second foundational skill of leadership.
It is helpful to listen and have an open mind. Yet, this is not all. If we go into a feedback conversation feeling nervous, people will know. Many of us have likely heard the phrase – name it to tame it. This means that if we understand what we are feeling, the feelings become easier to work with and overcome.
With any feedback situation, there are two or more people involved. The most productive feedback conversations feel vulnerable – for all people. This means that feelings – on both sides of the fence – abound. We are vulnerable – open to influence. This is a precious state, a gift from one person to another. It is something to be reverent of and prepared for.
Feelings stem from sensations and stir the part of our brain associated with connection and safety. If vulnerable is not a common state for us, we become unconsciously alert. We feel overwhelmed as our thoughts, emotions, desires become jumbled, mushy, and indistinguishable from each other.
Most work places value our strategic and tactical mind. It is hard to switch from tactical to vulnerable. These states differ widely in how we shape our selves. To easily switch from armor on, to armor off, we must practice.
To understand our feelings, it is helpful to sort through the mush – Is it this person that we fear? Are we afraid of the feedback we might receive? Does the topic make us uncomfortable? Or something else?
To sort out the mush we use a tool called the Mush Separator. This the third leadership foundation. It helps us create space between stimulus – “they failed to get me what I need and my stomach is in knots because my boss is upset” – and response – “You blew it.” and then we walk away.
In this space we separate our thoughts, from our feelings, and our intention. The mush separator is a valuable tool to use in conversation throughout the feedback process. As you will see in the model.
Deconstructive Feedback Long Form
People always ask, especially those in the construction field – why deconstructive? Before offering feedback, we must take apart how we feel, the intention we have, the purpose we are coming in with, and understand our mindset, be open to listening and know our feelings. Then, in our conversation with the other person, we must also do this. We deconstruct the experiences that led to the feedback. Then we can decide if we even need to offer the feedback at all.
The other day my daughter, who is preparing for a big project at school, was struggling with how to go about doing something. She dropped the ball on a call that she was supposed to make. I knew she had planned to call a potential mentor on Thursday night. It was Friday and I had not heard how the call went. I asked her about it. She looked surprised, almost covered it up with a story – I could tell by the pause, and then told me she forgot. Instead of launching into constructive feedback about how she should make a list, or destructive feedback, “I can’t believe you dropped the ball. How will you ever get a mentor with that approach?” I paused and thought, “What would best serve her right now?”
Before I respond, I had to understand my purpose. My purpose is to serve, not teach or belittle. What would best serve her is a learning conversation. A deconstruction of how she got to this uncomfortable feeling of forgetting in the first place. And, to help her find her way out. Purpose is the first task for both the short and the long form of feedback.
Before you shorten the feedback, it is best to make sure you understand the whole model, how it all works, and practice it a few times. Then you can begin to use the shorter form to offer feedback real time.
The long form starts with purpose. Just like my daughter, “Why are you giving this person feedback? What needle are you trying to help move? Why is it important to move the needle?” This is the pre-work we need to do BEFORE you begin the feedback conversation. We must be clear that the feedback we deliver is not a secret way to get back at a person or throw them off their game. It is inherently important to the success of the endeavor to offer this feedback. This may take some time if you are not in the practice of stating/understanding your purpose.
The next step is naming the observed action. If you have practiced the mush separator you will know what this is. What action did the person take that a video camera or a microphone would pick up? For my daughter, it was inaction, NOT calling her potential mentor.
Then we move to the perceived intention. This is always stated in the positive. For now, here are your only six options. My perception of your intention was to:
- be in choice, do it yourself, or be spontaneous;
- be understood for the intention beneath the behaviors;
- make a difference or contribute;
- be connected to a collective purpose;
- want things to be efficient, feasible, workable;
- be recognized or acknowledged for effort.
My daughter likely forgot. If I say this to her, she will instantly get defensive. As we stated above, this is not a good place to learn or have a conversation. To respect her, I state the positive intention. This is tough for many people, as we are taught through experience that feedback is/feels negative. If we do not recognize the underlying positive intention, we will begin to erode the relationship. So, with my daughter, I started with, “I believe your intention is to handle this yourself.”
Then we move to impact. The impact on me is, “I worry that you might burn bridges if you say you will call someone and then do not.”
With impact, we must be very careful we do not unleash our judgments or feedback in this space. If triggered or unconscious of my purpose I might say, “You probably burned that bridge.” Or “Now what are you going to do, you have to apologize.” Though these could both be true, she will begin to see me as a threat to her and actively undermine, resist, or avoid me. This would not help me/us achieve my/our purpose.
We must rehearse before we begin. We must practice the mush separator and understand ourselves before we begin to engage with another. This makes feedback productive instead of destructive.
The next step is conversation. I let her talk first and respond to what I said. The Mush Separator can be used here. We create space for them to share while we actively listen. Then, we paraphrase for understanding.
“I was supposed to call on Thursday after my after-school sports. But when I got home from a full day of school and sports, I was tired and hungry. So, I ate and read my book. Then, I did chores, had dinner, finished my homework, and went bed.”
I paraphrased plus and said, “You had a big day and were tired. It is unlike you to forget to do things that are important to you. This is a new task for you. And it seems like you don’t have a good practice for remembering to do it yet. Did I get that right?”
Until they say yes to the question of “Did I get it right?” you can go nowhere. If I didn’t get it right, she might have said, “No, I wanted to ….” Then she would reveal more of the story. We would keep this pattern going until she said, “Yes, You got it.” Only after the yes can you offer the feedback.
Many times, at this point in the feedback model, I say, “Wow, I had no idea all that was behind your action.” This results in me NOT offering the feedback. The conversation created an understanding so deep the feedback became irrelevant. They likely already knew what I was going to tell them and the conversation allowed them to come to the conclusion on their own. Making it even more likely they will follow through than if I had given them the feedback.
If you find there is still more to say, the last step is feedback. In my story, once again, I didn’t need to offer feedback. I needed to help her learn how to manage her time. She is only 13. So, I said, “This is important. I don’t want you to miss out on this mentor that you really like. How can I help you remember?”
This led to a conversation about what was the best day to have energy for calls, where could she write it down to help remember, what were some mnemonic ways for her to remember, and how I could help her.
Yes, this feedback model takes time. But isn’t it worth the time to build the relationship now, so that in the future, we can use the short from.
Deconstructive Feedback Short Form
With the short form, we still must be aware of our purpose. We still must shape our mindset – curious. Have been practicing active listening. And know ourselves through walking through the Mush Separator.
Here is how it will look:
“Today is the day you said you would call your mentor. I think you are waiting until they are done with dinner and bedtime (making it workable for them). I am worried you might forget. Do you have a plan?”
Since we had the first conversation, she knows I am on her side. She understands my purpose is to serve and help so she can be successful. She can answer with a, “Thanks for the reminder, I almost forgot.” or “Yes, I am waiting until after her kid goes to bed.”
A long conversation to build relationship and save time in the future is worth it to me to be able to have these short conversations in the moment. As the facilitator at the Great Conversations course at Seattle Children’s Hospital once said, “100 one-minute conversations are better than one 100-minute conversation.” The conversation becomes a practice, not a long moment in time. It becomes a tool to use in conversation for the child or the grown-up at work, at home, or in the community.
The Deconstructive Feedback Model is the fourth foundational skill of leadership. By now you are probably recognizing that reading and practicing are not the same thing. Print out the model, create a mnemonic, and practice. May you be successful.
If you need help understanding your purpose, getting out of the practice of offering negative intentions – we all do it, or are uncertain about how you feel – invite perspective. We love the work we do.