Giving & receiving feedback (pt 2)

On giving feedback
I’ve learnt a lot about giving feedback over the last few years. I’ve learnt it the hard way: through being a clumsy arse and giving it badly, through hurting people’s feelings many times. I’ve been told over and over again that my feedback didn’t land because I didn’t give it right. And I’ve also been told when it did, when I found the ‘just so’ point and gave it in a way that could be received and taken on board.

My clients have taught me a lot about giving feedback. By definition most of them come to me because they want my support and input. They appreciate the feedback, it’s part of what they pay me for. At the same time, it’s important that I deliver it skilfully and with love. I’ve learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t from my precious clients – from cleaning up messy situations as well as the times that they’ve had breakthroughs because I ‘hit the spot’.

So here’s some of the stuff I’ve learnt that I hope will be useful to you too.


 

Timing
Timing is very important when giving feedback, especially when it’s something the person might find difficult to hear. In fact there’s a close correlation between how difficult the feedback might be to hear and how carefully you should consider the timing.

So if, for example, I want to give someone a compliment and I know they find receiving compliments easy, I won’t think too hard about the timing. I do of course still want us to both be present for the conversation, as giving praise is important and I want it to land just as much as more challenging feedback. I’ll still ask if it’s OK to give – more on that in a moment – and I’ll still pick my moment. But I won’t worry too much because I know that they’re going to receive the feedback easily and it’s going to land without too much discomfort.

By contrast, if I want to tell someone that something they’ve been doing is crossing one of my boundaries, or that people are speaking badly about them, I’m going to pick my moment carefully. I want to know that they’re in a calm, receptive state of mind and that they don’t have too much else on their plate. (This is ideal though not always possible.) So I’ll look for the right moment, or create that moment between us, to enable me to offer the feedback.

I sometimes lay the ground by telling them in advance that I have some potentially-challenging feedback and that I’d like us to make space for it. This is a bit of a mixed strategy, though, as it can cause the person to get themselves worked up and panicky about the feedback and be less receptive and open when the moment actually comes. However, from personal experience I find it better to be forewarned that ‘we’re going to have a potentially difficult conversation’ than simply have it dropped on me.

(And believe me, as the giver of feedback I’ve messed this one up plenty of times!)

Exactly how you handle the timing and how much you ‘prepare’ the person for feedback depends on your relationship and what you think works best for the other person. Each relationship is different and there are no clear rules about the best approach – but in my opinion care and thought needs to be given to this.


 

Asking permission
Another key element to giving feedback successfully is to ask before launching in. The question is so simple and so potent: May I offer you some feedback? This immediately shines a light of respect and consent on the conversation you’re about to have. It says “I care about you” before you’ve even started. What a great way to start – especially if the feedback you’re about to give is challenging!

It also allows the person to say no to receiving your feedback, which is their right. There are many different reasons why someone might not want feedback (either right now or at all): because now is not the right moment; because they don’t have the resources to take it on board; because they aren’t open to your feedback; because they find feedback really challenging and need to prepare themselves; and so on. Whatever the reason (and they don’t have to share it), it’s important to respect someone’s no if they don’t wish to receive your feedback, however difficult that might be for you as the one wishing to give it. It’s like any activity where you enter someone else’s psychic, emotional or physical space: no means no.

In practice I’ve found it to be rare for people to say no when asked respectfully if they want feedback. Why? Because honestly, most folks really want to hear feedback from someone who cares about them, even if it’s difficult. Especially if it’s difficult, actually: because isn’t it better to hear that from someone who cares about you than someone who doesn’t (or worse – not at all)?

In asking this question I sometimes qualify it a bit. For example:

“I’d like to give you some positive feedback – are you open to that?”
“I have some slightly difficult feedback to share with you – is this a good time for it?”
“I’ve been hearing things about you and I want to give you some feedback on it – how do you feel about me doing that?”

Like the timing, the exact words you choose depend on the relationship you have, what you know about the person and so on. For example, I immediately get nervous if people say things like “can I give you some feedback?” – or worse, “can I have a word with you?” I always assume that I’ve done something wrong and I’m about to get berated for it. So adding something that gives me a little sense of the nature of the feedback (positive, negative, challenging etc) is always welcomed.

If the feedback is difficult, there’s no real way round the fact that the conversation will be vulnerable. The thing to remember is, it’ll be vulnerable for both of you. As the giver of difficult feedback, in a culture where we are taught that this is rude, you’ll undoubtedly be nervous and uncomfortable beforehand. This can often lead to you being jerky, blunt, harsh, mumbly or clumsy in your delivery. Remember to be very kind to yourself and know that you’re doing something both brave and difficult. And ultimately, you’re giving the other person a gift: the gift of your feedback.

Because it’s true that we often feel funny, especially right before we start, I recommend practicing the question you’re going to ask and honing the exact words you’re going to use beforehand. This sounds super naff, I know, but I think it makes a massive difference. As a former theatre director I know that great delivery starts once the lines are learnt by heart. If you have said the line enough times that the words themselves don’t trip you up, you can really focus on keeping your heart open and saying them with as much love and compassion as possible when the moment comes. Won’t this be the kindest way to deliver something difficult to someone you care about?

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