How to Give Feedback that Doesn’t Suck
“Can I give you some feedback?”
I don’t know about you, but rarely is this the prelude to my favourite kind of conversation.
For six little words, they sure can generate a lot of energy, both for the giver and for the receiver.
I think there are probably a lot of reasons for this, none the least of which is that giving and receiving feedback requires vulnerability on both sides. Vulnerability tends to trigger our fears and their ensuing self-preserving defenses. From there, it can often be a free-for-all of disagreeing, judging, defending and saving face.
All this because we wanted to make something better.
So, what happens instead? Why does getting and giving feedback so often suck? Why does feedback make us feel so wary?
I recently had a conversation with someone who had been asked to provide feedback to an organization she was part of, and she really didn’t want to do it. It made her feel vulnerable to offer her feedback, and she didn’t believe they would do anything with the feedback, anyway. She even worried it might be used against her in some way.
The more we teased apart what was in the way of her feeling empowered to provide feedback in this circumstance, the more we could see where some wires were getting crossed. The feedback she had for them was layered with her complaints, judgments and opinions about what was wrong and how it should be fixed. She was already frustrated at the thought they wouldn’t do exactly what she wanted them to do about it, so why even bother giving feedback at all?
I think this is pretty familiar for all of us, myself included, when it comes to the minefield that is feedback.
The key here, I think, is that when we give feedback, it ought to be about the giving of it. To give something means we freely transfer the possession of something over to someone else. Giving means it’s a gift, a thing given willingly without the expectation of compensation in return.
Let’s be honest, though, how often do we really treat feedback like a gift, whether we’re giving or receiving it? I know I often don’t. Instead, I’ll admit I’m attached to being right, regardless of which side of the conversation I’m coming from. I often feel righteous, offensive and judgmental in the giving of feedback, and I often feel protective, defensive and judgmental in the receiving of it.
I figure this all makes sense. We make anyone’s less-than-absolute satisfaction in who we are and what we do mean that we aren’t good enough. This, in turn, triggers old childhood wounds and stories about who we are or who we are not, which, along with our evolutionary biological drive to fit in, threaten our ability to stay loved, safe and sound in our village. After all, there’s safety in numbers, you know.
Whoa. So all that’s what’s going on when we’re in a feedback conversation. No wonder we get all funky about it.
Maybe, though, it can go differently. Maybe we can shift how feedback tends to go by shifting how we think about it.
To begin with, we need to recognize that if we’re giving feedback, then we’re giving a gift. That means we give our feedback freely, without expectation of anything in return, or that the other side do anything in particular with it. After all, a gift with strings attached isn’t much of a gift: it’s an obligation.
We can practice relinquishing our expectations by recognizing that we have them in the first place, and identifying our attachment to a particular outcome. Because, let’s face it: we all have have attachments to particular outcomes, and what we think everyone else should be doing.
The reality is that we don’t really have any control over the outcome of our feedback (or, you know, other people) anyway. Pretending otherwise just leaves us feeling frustrated and powerless when someone doesn’t do what we want them to do with our feedback, which, after we’ve given it, is mostly their business and none of ours.
From there, it’s important to examine the feedback we’re giving and receiving: is it actually feedback? That might seem like an obvious question, but it’s worth noting that the definition of feedback is literally just “information about a reaction to a product , service or experience”. Nothing in that definition includes “judgments, opinions and advice”, even though that’s often what we’re serving up, isn’t it?
So then, if we’re being honest, are we really just giving information about our experience, or are we handing over our judgments, opinions and advice about what we’d have preferred? I, for one, can own that often, I’m pretty righteous about my feedback, including how others should change to be better, according to me.
What if it’s possible to provide feedback that isn’t judgment or advice disguised as helpful information? What if we could discern what’s helpful and what isn’t from feedback we receive, instead of reacting to the parts we didn’t like? What would it be like to give or receive that feedback?
After all, unless someone’s asked us explicitly for our judgment, opinion or advice, then that’s not the kind of feedback they’re looking for. If it feels important to share our opinions and advice, then by all means, we could always tell them that we have an opinion or some advice and ask if they’re open to receiving that, too.
The best part about this approach is that it lets feedback be a true gift. It lets us off the hook of feeling frustrated with how our feedback is received, and it also means that we’re free to accept feedback without feeling like we’re on the hook for what we should do with it.
How do you feel about feedback? What do you make it mean, about you, about them?
What would be possible if feedback was just information and you were free to heed it or ignore it, regardless of anyone’s expectations, including your own?