Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
A few months ago I was sharing an invigorating bushwalk with a good friend of mine. As well as admiring the wonderful views from the Bouddi coastal walk, we were enjoying a deep conversation, the sort that only comes naturally from a decades long friendship.
At one point my friend shared a challenge with me. He was faced with providing some negative feedback, and wasn’t quite sure how.
I unhesitatingly began to describe a technique that I had learnt recently, courtesy of a couple of senior leaders at work whose advice I respected greatly. It’s a four step process, I said. You start off by expressing your observations about facts that are indisputable. Then you state how you feel about your observations. Then…
At this point I had to admit that I couldn’t recall the third step. But I could remember that the final step was to make a request.
We walked on along the track for a few minutes. I listened more to my friend talk about the nature of the challenge he faced. I looked around to admire the beautiful natural surroundings, and listened to the birds calling. Then I remembered.
Ah, the third step is to state my needs, I said. So I recapped the four steps I had learned from the book “Nonviolent Communication” 1, about which my colleagues had given such high praise:
Why had I felt such a strong desire to convey this advice? Because the challenging of providing negative feedback has been one with which I have struggled for many years. In more recent times, I’ve been grateful for the advice I’ve been given about how to improve my ability to give effective feedback.
We are all human. I’m sure most people are familiar with the old phrase, “to err is to be human”. To put it another way, we are imperfect. Indeed, I occasionally enjoy listening to a podcast called The Imperfects from folks at The Resilience Project.
Over the years I think I’ve been reasonably good at being compassionate towards my fellow humans. I’m sure I’ve slipped up from time to time, but it’s not an area about which I agonise. Although, on reflection, I can recall times when my perfectionist nature has resulted in me unfairly judging others.
Then again, perhaps there have been times when I have been too focussed on being empathic. I know there have been many times when I have chosen not to give negative feedback because I didn’t want to upset a person. And there have probably been other times when this has occurred subconsciously.
Another book that was recommended to me in relatively recent times was “Radical Candor” 2. The Radical Candor approach was born from bitter experience. The author recounts how her failure to provide negative feedback ended up causing her company to fail!
Kim Scott presents a framework that emphasises challenging people directly as well as caring for them personally. Her term for caring without challenging is “ruinous empathy”, whereas “radical candor” involves challenging directly as well as caring personally.
I like to think of this in terms of being prepared to provide honest feedback, even if it is negative. Or, to use another more positive phrase, constructive criticism.
I know I need to remind myself that people often very much value being challenged to behave differently. It needn’t end in tears! However, naturally, I don’t want to fall into the trap of challenging people directly without caring for them personally. Kim Scott describes this as “obnoxious aggression.”
When providing feedback, it’s important to express oneself clearly so that your feedback has a good chance of landing well. Expressing feedback through the Nonviolent Communication lens can help. Or, finding words that convey a challenge to change behaviour, but in a caring way, can also help.
A piece of advice that I’ve received about how to express feedback effectively is to include the words “so that” in the following pattern, which is a shortened form of the Nonviolent Communication process:
“I’ve noticed that (behaviour). In future, could you (new behaviour) so that (better outcome).”
Whichever approach you use, I think it’s important to choose words that resonate with you. Be yourself, and choose words that convey honest feedback. Be prepared for a dialogue to unfold, and adapt to the flow.
Providing feedback will often be appreciated by the recipient. However, feedback is only part of helping someone. By its nature it addresses past behaviour. If communicated well, hopefully it has landed well.
People grow over time, and need careful support. In the form of coaching, which I’ve heard described as being someone’s “thinking partner”, feedback can be reinforced gradually. Over time, a person can realise for themselves how they can improve. On the subject of coaching, an excellent resource is “The Coaching Habit” 3.
So far I’ve been focussing on providing negative feedback. Naturally, if all feedback is negative, it is unlikely to lead to improvement. I know that I stuff up from time to time, have many things to learn, and much potential to improve. If all the feedback I receive is negative, however, the chances are that I will become quickly demotivated.
I’ve heard a recommendation to provide five times more positive feedback than negative feedback. On what basis that ratio is suggested, I don’t know. I haven’t seen any evidence supporting that particular ratio. However, I understand the sentiment.
To look at it through the “Radical Candor” lens, it is important to display caring support for a person as well as directly challenging them. And feedback that directly challenges a person is more likely to land well if that person feels that they are genuinely being cared for. Regular acknowledgement of the things that they have done well helps.
Why does some feedback not land well? And how can we improve the chances of it having a positive impact? “Thanks for the Feedback” 4 is an excellent book that delves into this topic extensively. The authors begin by identifying how negative feedback can trigger us in different ways:
Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen go on to recommend separating feedback into three kinds: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. They then explain that the giver and the receiver of feedback are not always on the same wavelength with respect to the type of feedback. This is why I think that one of the key messages comes later in the book when the topic of navigating a conversation is discussed.
I don’t want to regurgitate the entire contents of this excellent book. Rather, I encourage you to read it, along with the others I have referred to. Suffice to say that it’s important clarify the purpose of a conversation at the outset. Practicing the skills of listening, asserting, managing the conversation process, and problem solving helps the main part of a conversation. And, in closing a conversation, clarify outcomes such as commitments so that they can be followed up later.
None of us are perfect, despite the old assertion that “practice makes perfect”. However, it is important to keep practicing.
I know that giving and receiving feedback effectively is something that I need to keep working at. I also need to continue to practice challenging people directly as well as caring for them personally.
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships by Marshall B. Rosenberg ↩
Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You mean (Expert Thinking) by Kim Scott ↩
The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier ↩
Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen ↩
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