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 so profoundly true! Thanks to a dear Scottish friend, I am able to provide you with the authentic Scottish version of this passage, and also with a translation which may be a bit clearer, “Oh would some, the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.” Or, in other words, “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 school yard 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 is currently newsworthy and a very “hot” issue in our school systems, but it has also made the news, in the corporate arena. The April 17, 2002, Careers Section of Canada’s national newspaper, “The Globe and Mail” headlined an article by Marjo Johne, entitled, “When bullies go to work: employers that tolerate 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 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”, the split second it occurs to them to do so!

Some parents tell their children, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”. In business, this isn’t the best way to move ahead. Sometimes things that aren’t “nice” to say, must to 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?
  • 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 on 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
  • empathize with the other’s perspective…put yourself in their “shoes”
  • acknowledge to yourself, and the other person, that part of the “problem” that belongs to you (and, 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
  • embrace the below guidelines for giving feedback
  • 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 interval down the road

Feedback is most helpful if its:

  • descriptive not 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”
  • 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 of which they feel they have no control eg. 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 will forget, or choose not to use the feedback skills you intellectually understand. Sometimes you might kick yourself, afterwards, for succumbing to your emotional reactivity…you knew better, and blurted out regretful words, anyway! When those moments occur, cut yourself some slack. Even if you consciously decide that you are a life long student 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 assess what you did wrong, and how you will improve next time.

P.S. For the potential honourary “Scot” within, I have it on good (Scottish) authority that one must always refer to Robert Burns as “Rabbie” and never “Robbie”. You can keep that in mind for next January!

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