Nina Spencer

It Takes TWO to see ONE

The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback

"O' wad some poower the giftie gi'e us, tae see o'orsels as ithers see us."

Rabbie Burns

I've always found this passage by the beloved Scottish poet, Robert Burns, to be profoundly true. Thanks to a dear Scottish friend, I'm able to provide you with the authentic Scottish version of this sentiment, and also with a modern-day translation which, no doubt, is plenty clearer: Oh would some, the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us." Or, in clearer words, still: We'd all benefit tremendously from heeding the feedback of others.

Remember that schoolyard bully who wielded positional power with all the kids? The one who bragged, "Hey! If I have something to say about you, I'll tell it to your face!" Now we meet those "bullies" in our communities and workplaces. At work, there's a good chance that some have made it to middle management or beyond.

These one-time schoolyard bullies may not present in the same way that they did when they were 12 or 13 years old, at least not on the surface, but it's amazing how character traits established by Grade 6 or so, still manifest in today's workplace. Bullying as a topic of concern and focus is still newsworthy and continues as a very hot issue in our school systems, but it has also made the news in the corporate arena. When bullies go to work employers that tolerate such abuse risk lower productivity, high staff turnover, costly legal fees and worse. Workplace bullying can be subtle or quite aggressive, and comes in many forms.

I once attended a team meeting where the chairperson strongly and rudely articulated his opinion about a team member's "quirks and preferences." It was an over-the-top explosion, shocking all in the room, including the person to whom the words were directed. The chair then said, as if sensing he needed to defend his outburst, "Hey, we're all adults here! I'm just calling a spade a spade. I'm calling it the way I see it. I'm speaking the truth here!" A lot of damage was done to that team's harmony and synergy in just a few moments... and all in the name of the "truth."

Many employees have had the good fortune of extra professional development and training around effective communication skills. Many take these opportunities to heart and commit to being lifelong students of these skills. Yet, we still witness colleagues, who we thought knew better, being grossly inappropriate in their communications, hiding behind the cloak of, "We're all adults here. We all understand the importance of giving feedback and telling the truth to one another, so I'm letting it rip!" It's even worse when those people are in positions of official leadership, and wield their positional and tyrannical power over staff. And it does happen! I've often heard it said that the very people who most need professional development workshops in leadership and communication skills, are the very ones who never attend; or if they do attend, it's once or twice - and never again all the rest of their days!

I subscribe to the old adage, "A little information is a dangerous thing." Too often I see and hear people apply effective communication concepts out of context. Some say they embrace higher level thinking about how and when to give feedback and then whimsically, thoughtlessly and erratically pop off personal thoughts masqueraded as "feedback" without reflecting on why these words are jumping out of their mouth in the first place.

There is a feedback tyranny happening in some organizations. Many people feel that if they are "dying" to give another their feedback, they have the right, obligation and organizational duty to get it off their chest, and tell their "truth" immediately! Alternatively, some subscribe to the thinking, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." In business, neither is the best "way to go" every time out. Sometimes things that aren't "nice" to say must be addressed. But, if you wish to declare yourself, and be perceived by others, as an expert of masterful interpersonal communications (or at least dutiful student of these ways) it's essential to remember, "there's a way, and there's a way" to deliver feedback.

Before the next time you feel compelled to give feedback:

  • Develop your introspective skills; ask yourself what your motives are for wanting to give feedback... be sure there's a real problem or issue, that won't go away if it's not addressed... or could it just be that you are in a bad mood, didn't get enough sleep, or even just plain hungry?
  • Realize there's often something going on beyond the "presenting issue" that can trigger you to want to give the other person feedback; try to identify the real issue or opportunity, not just the symptoms or personalities.
  • Be prepared to work towards a mutually agreeable solution rather than towards "winning"; think solution-oriented rather than problem-solving.
  • Remember that it's alright to disagree... the other person is not "bad" if he or she disagrees with you.
  • Keep your perspective; rather than destroying a relationship, if you value working to reduce the strain that exists between you and another, choosing to work towards a mutually satisfying solution can eventually enhance the relationship.

While working on an issue remember to:

  • Ask yourself, "Is the issue which concerns me a preference or a value?" (Be willing to consider letting go of at least some of your preferences, and keep your burning desire to share feedback for issues related to your values.)
  • Look for "win-win" solutions. After all these years of hearing about "win - win" it's still the best solution when it works out!
  • Empathize with the other's perspective--put yourself in their "shoes."
  • Acknowledge to yourself, and the other person, that particular part of the "problem" that belongs to you--to ensure your sincerity, be sure that you can at least identify what part is your "fault."
  • Talk about your feelings rather than passive aggressively acting them out.
  • Establish a common goal and stay focused on it.
  • Be persistent in coming to a satisfactory solution if the issue is really important to you.
  • At the end of the discussion with the other person, summarize what has been decided, who will take any next steps and set a follow-up date for checking in with one another to see how things are going, at some agreed interval down the road.
  • Embrace the below guidelines for giving feedback...

Feedback is most helpful if it's:

  • Descriptive versus evaluative: You interrupted him twice," rather than, "You're not a good listener."
  • Specific vs.general: "I like the way you praised Peter for handling that situation", rather than, "You always give support to your staff."
  • Specific vs. general: "I like the way you praised Peter for handling that situation," rather than, "You always give support to your staff."
  • Solicited vs. imposed: When we impose feedback, the other person may feel defensive; when feedback is solicited by the other person, there's a better chance our feedback will be heard and received.
  • Well timed: offer feedback soon after the situation being described (provided that you believe the receiver is ready and willing to hear the information).
  • Focused on modifiable behaviour: frustration is only increased when people are reminded of shortcomings over issues about which they feel they have no control e.g., there's no use yelling at someone for being the wrong height!
  • Considerate of the needs of the receiver and giver: offer feedback from a position of caring, sincerely expressed--everyone knows when the "noise" of caring words is artificial; pay attention to the needs of the person on the receiving end of the feedback.
  • Validated with the receiver: before you offer feedback, get the receiver's perspective on the topic; after giving the feedback, check that the information you offered was accurately received by the other; be quick... make sure you get your initial feedback point across and then ask for the other's response within 60 seconds, otherwise the receiver may feel attacked and become defensive; so practice being succinct with your opening feedback comments.
  • Not a demand for change: we often give feedback as our way of demanding that the other person change; when feedback is sincerely and consciously offered, it is not a demand for change--it's simply a provision of information which the receiver can choose to apply, as he or she sees fit.

Above all, remember George Bernard Shaw's words when you are on the giving end of feedback, "In the right key, any thing can be said, in the wrong key, nothing. The only delicate part is the establishment of the key."

Becoming personally masterful at giving and receiving feedback could keep you busy all the rest of your days. There will be times when you forget, or choose not to use the feedback skills you intellectually understand and appreciate. Sometimes you might kick yourself afterwards for succumbing to your emotional reactivity, e.g., you knew better and blurted out regretful words anyway! When those moments occur, cut yourself some slack. Even if you consciously decide that you're a life long student and champion of higher and higher interpersonal communications skills, sometimes you're bound to "fall off the wagon." When these moments happen, celebrate that at least you have the awareness to recognize and assess what you did "wrong," and recommit to how you will improve next time.

P.S. Because Rabbie Burns day is today, January 25th, to fan the flames of the fun for your potential honourary "Scot-for-the-day" within, go ahead... raise a glass, pass the Haggis and enjoy this nice excuse for celebrating a happy day, especially as we continue to work through our mid-winter stretch! And for the record, I have it on good (Scottish) authority that one must always refer to Robert Burns as "Rabbie" and never "Robbie." ;)

P.P.S. Rabbie Burns penned the now-beloved New Year's classic poem (and song), Auld Lang Syne. So once again, then, in the spirit of that song, and before January's done and it gets too long-in-the-tooth to say... a happy, healthy and satisfying new year to you! All the best in 2017.