Feedback Is Hard Work

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Spencer Johnson, the author of Who Moved My Cheese, said "Integrity is telling yourself the truth. Honesty is telling the truth to other people."

A large part of my career has been spent in helping individuals, teams and organizations embrace feedback. I have found that feedback is not a favorite thing to give OR receive. Even the people who say they enjoy receiving feedback typically don't. It sounds brave and mature to say that though.

How does Webster (the true authority on meaning) define feedback?

: an annoying and unwanted sound caused by signals being returned to an electronic sound system

: helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance, product, etc.

This definition made me smile. As I find myself in situations where I am either providing feedback or helping others provide feedback, or in many cases helping someone else receive feedback, I think it is often thought of as "an annoying or unwanted sound". It's somehow okay if I say something critical about myself, but I really don't want to hear you say it. Isn't that interesting? As I read the 2nd definition, I notice that it says "helpful information or criticism..." - do you think that "helpful" is meant to describe both "information" and "criticism", or even in this definition, is criticism seen as not being helpful?  Is it only information that is helpful?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions I am posing. Actually, there is no right answer - there is only your perspective.  PERSPECTIVE - that is the most powerful word to remember about feedback. When I offer someone a piece of feedback, I am offering them my perspective on something ... their idea, their process, their choice of restaurant, their taste in music, or even the way they drive. When I offer my perspective, I have no control of how it will be viewed through the recipient's perspective. Will they see it as helpful?  or as criticism?

This topic is on my mind today because I had the opportunity to share 360 survey results (feedback) with a coaching client today. It used to be that I would get pretty worked up about those sessions where I needed to help a client receive someone else's feedback. It's gotten easier and as I left the session today, I began to reflect on what was different for me these days as I work with feedback.  I always start by asking my client what they appreciate about the feedback. Most times I hear them say "I'm happy that people were honest." This isn't saying that the feedback was welcomed or easy to hear or even agreed with ... it is saying that people appreciate honesty from other people. That aligns with what Spencer Johnson says.  Honesty is telling the truth to other people. I would alter that and say honesty is telling "your truth" to other people.  It isn't very often that feedback can be actually labeled as absolute truth, but if you believe something to be true, then it is truth to you. We spent quite a bit of time today, my client and I, talking about how refreshing it is to know what someone thinks or feels. This client will now have the task of going back to each person who provided feedback and deepening the conversation, and the learning.

Here are a few key lessons I have learned about feedback:

* Begin by asking if someone is interested in another perspective. If they say no - try to honor that.

* The best feedback is both honest and honoring.

* Not everyone wants to receive feedback in the same manner. Practice the platinum rule and give unto others as they would like to be given unto.

* The sandwich principle of something good - something critical - something good  is POOR!  Everyone knows there is a stinky middle in this sandwich and it often makes them discount the positive things you wedged around the stink.

* Think of it as feedforward (Marshall Goldsmith coined this term) and make the conversation focused on a successful future instead of a failed past.

* When receiving feedback, just breathe and say thank you.  No need for reaction.

* Feedback is neutral - just like events are neutral - you are the one that attributes a negative or positive connotation to it.

* You always have a choice of what to do with feedback (when receiving).  When giving, remember that the person you are offering it to has that same choice. You can only offer it/ give it - you have zero control of the reception once the gift is given.

This was not meant to be an exhaustive list of tips about feedback (sorry that it kind of turned into a lengthy post); it was meant to be a reminder that feedback is hard. We can all improve in how we give it and how we receive it. We all have places in our lives where we need to be brave and speak our honest truth.  We all have places in our lives where we need to keep our perspectives to ourselves. I hope that this bit causes all of us to ponder which is most appropriate - speaking or refraining from speaking - knowing that there is a cost and a benefit to both of those choices.