Recently my girlfriend gave me feedback on my writing, and it didn’t go well. Just about everything that we knew about what to do, or not do when giving feedback went wrong, and I felt personally attacked. Funny thing is that we are both trained and experienced in giving and receiving feedback.
But it went wrong anyway.
Only days before, she recounted how she took critical feedback personally, so it’s clear we forget to practice what we know.
what’s going on when feedback goes awry
Many things can go wrong when giving feedback e.g the giver is too rough and ignores what’s working, or too nice and ignores what’s not, but the biggest thing that can go wrong with feedback is having it land on the person and not on her work.
Receiver takes it personally
That’s what happened with me and my girlfriend. I felt that I, not my work, was the focus of her feedback which expressed her deep disappointment in me. I took it personally, (even though I’ve written about why not to). Instead of feeling encouraged to fly, I felt I could never soar like an eagle because I was flapping little penguin wings.
The emotional minefield
Perhaps where we both went wrong was forgetting that every human relationship is laden with emotional (land)mines, and regardless of how strong a relationship, a careless or casual remark, can trip one off. The remark brings up something from a person’s past—a relationship with a demanding parent or being unfairly criticized and laughed at when they were seven.
I think it’s good to approach any form of evaluation, performance appraisal, or acknowledgment with care for not setting off an emotional landmine.
Learning to confront
I believe it was in “Difficult Conversations” by Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton where I read something about giving feedback (criticizing) that stuck with me. As I recall it had to do with the strong connotations of criticism with confrontation.
Consider how we think of the word confront:
- oppose, as in hostility or a competition. “You must confront your opponent”; “Jackson faced Smith in the boxing ring”; “The two enemies
finally confronted each other”
- deal with (something unpleasant) head on; “You must confront your problems”;
The word confront connotes hostility, argument, opposition. We approach most feedback as a confrontation and we think we’ll either come out winning or losing.
Stone and Patton offered a different way of thinking about confrontation based on the original meaning of the word confront: to stand with (the person receiving the feedback), in front of (their work: the thing being evaluated). I’ve interpreted this as—
Feedback should be triangular, not linear
Think of someone you need to give some important feedback to. Picture you and that person as two points of a triangle facing the third, the article, report, sculpture, video of a performance etc. Both of you are physically oriented towards the work and discussing how (helping each other) to improve it. This “triangulation” differs from how we usually give feedback.
In the normal feedback formation, the giver and receiver face each other with the work in the middle. Often though, the person receiving the feedback places herself in the middle to defend her work from the criticism. She tries to protect her work because, for her, her work IS HER.
Feedback-triangulation as I call it doesn’t inoculate the receiver from hurt and defensiveness, but it does reduce the chances of this happening. Why? Because the triangular formation helps focus both sides on something external to them both.
Feedback is standing together to face a shared interest.
Can a simple physical orientation make such a difference? It can, but it’s actually more a mental orientation. The physical orientation is more like training wheels when learning to ride. With time and practice, and an ability to share when feedback is landing personally, both giver and receiver won’t need the physical orientation because they get something key to effective feedback:
We’re on the same side
Once the person receiving feedback gets that the person giving the feedback is on their side, almost anything can be said without anyone taking it personally.
But sometimes we forget we’re on the same side, as I did when I listened to my girlfriend’s very valid comments. We got it straight though. We talked things out and discovered how things landed for the other. We forgave, hugged, kissed and moved on.
Might not work with your direct reports though.
So first establish you’re on their side before giving feedback to anyone you care about, and triangulate your feedback. Your comments are about what could make the work become stronger, faster, more effective or more creative.
It’s not about the person.
Trust they will incorporate the feedback into their next attempt, and their tiny penguin flippers will grow into eagle wings, or they’ll figure out those little fellas are for rocketing through water, not air.