How do you feel when someone says “Can I give you some feedback on that?”

As we live our lives, manage our relationships, work at work or play our chosen professional sport, we are constantly being watched, listened to; we ‘are’ being observed by others.  This ‘observation’ is made through all manner of ways and means and through myriad eyes generating subjective and objective opinions and can differ in as many ways as there are individuals making them.

Take sports-people (men and women) as an example.  In a crowd of 100,000 people watching a sporting match there will be 100,000 differing opinions; everyone using different parameters and preferences and even prejudices, that will draw them to their own conclusions.

“Would you mind if I gave you some feedback?” … and this can be through a variety of means and measures; newspapers, critical reviews, TV interviews and analysis, your spouse, friend or even your Manager/Team Leader at work.  How does/would this simple statement makes you feel?  Because what this actually means is “Would you mind if I gave you some negative feedback, wrapped in the guise of constructive criticism, whether you want it or not?”

I say this is negative because, the precursor is never used when praising someone.

The problem with any critique, good or bad, is that it challenges our sense of self and of our inner beliefs and values.  Criticism, by its very nature, implies a judgment (by someone else) making us all recoil from those feelings and emotions of being judged.

Daniel Goleman, the Best Selling Author of EQ Emotional Intelligence, has in the past noted that threats to our self-esteem in the eyes of others, is so potent, that the threats can literally feel like threats to our very survival and can affect us to our very core.  This dramatic reduction of self esteem feeds our negative emotional thoughts and responses and can remain as a predator stalking its prey for a long time after the critique.  In short, ‘we take it to heart’ and in very many cases, we cast our own (true or false) interpretation on the critique and see the ‘monsters’ in our own minds in which we give life and reason.

The problem is that feedback is necessary.  It is the primary means by which we learn, develop, progress and grow.   So how can we, should we, deliver it in the best and most productive way in that it will provide the greatest value AND motivation to us (as individuals) ~ in order that the recipient truly understands, recognises, appreciates, absorbs and acts upon it?

We believe there are key behaviours which are each founded in the recognition that what we say is often less important than how we say it.

The first mistake which is often made is when we give feedback when we are feeling that our own value is at risk.  This is a recipe for disaster, but it happens far more commonly than we think, or are aware.

If a Manager say, is feeling threatened, tired, under pressure or even diminished by another person’s perceived shortcomings, providing “constructive criticism” will usually become secondary to getting the critique targeted and apposite?  The Manager is far more likely to be reactive, insensitive and even potentially hurtful.

If it is about us (the tired under pressure Manager), it can’t be truly about them.  Any time we provide feedback with the goal of getting someone to better meet our needs, rather than being responsive to theirs, it’s unlikely to prompt the desired outcome.

A classic example is the parent who confuses his own worth with his child’s performance, and reacts to the child’s mishaps or mistakes with harshness and judgment rather than sensitivity and compassion.

The second mistake we make in giving feedback is failing to recognise and accept the other person’s value in the process.  Even the most well-intentioned criticism will, more often than not, prompt us to feel our value is at risk, and under attack.

When this happens, the primal natural impulse is to defend ourself.  EQ emotional intelligence is crucially required in these circumstances but so very often is not practiced in these circumstances; neither from the Managers perspective nor from the person being critiqued.  The more the person you are criticizing feels compelled to defend their value, the less capable they become of absorbing what they are hearing.

I once had a trainee, a student, who was very competent and detail-driven, and rarely made mistakes. Partly this grew out of her innate perfectionism and her outsized fear of the consequences of being wrong.

Her automatic instinct was to deny responsibility for any mistake. Her natural habit was to blame others, the system, the process, the process, anything but … admitting she had erred.  So, when I felt the need to bring a mistake to her attention, I learned that it was crucial to begin by reassuring her, that I cared about her progress and her development, and that I had continuing confidence in her abilities; only then could she truly recognise and accept what I was saying and why.

So … When we are tasked to offer specific feedback we should always try to pause and ask our self first, how would we feel if someone gave us this feedback? If you would feel uncomfortable or defensive, then you can naturally assume that anyone else would too.

The third mistake we make, is to assume that we are right about whatever it is we are inclined to say.   It’s a natural phenomenon that we take a series of facts and then weave them together into a story that supports and justifies the case we’re seeking to make.  The problem is that our resultant stories aren’t necessarily always true.  They are simply one interpretation of the facts as we see them.

Don’t you think it makes much more sense to think about offering feedback in a spirit of humble exploration, rather than a stark and bare declaration?  That dialogue is preferable rather than our own monologue, where curiosity rather than certainty should be the call?

Humility … is in the recognition that we don’t know, even when we think we know.   We must always seek ‘the thing’ out before we discover.

Ultimately, I think, we would be far better off eliminating these bling concepts like “feedback” and “constructive criticism” from our vocabulary altogether. They are so polarizing, so causal of bias, mistrust and most certainly can be so destructive.  We need to think of these interchanges instead as opportunities for honest inquiry and genuine learning.

“Here’s the story I’m telling myself about what just happened,” we might say.

“Have I got that right, or am I missing something?”

That’s exactly what I intend to say the next time I’m inclined to ask someone, “Would you mind if I gave you some feedback?”

Please, stop thinking of ‘feedback’ as a chore, a ‘business process’, a Managers ‘duty or task’, a Teachers method of assessment.  Start to treat these opportunities for being just that, opportunities, in which we ‘all’ learn and discover.

Michael Boase

EQ Consultant and CEO

© 2011

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