Giving and Receiving Feedback

How do I come across? What can I do to improve? What am I unaware of?

These questions often cross our minds, and can send us seeking for that essential data called ‘feedback’.

Giving and receiving feedback happens at both the conscious and semi-conscious levels. Any meeting of people presents an opportunity for feedback, which takes place through two main media:

• Spoken and written language.
• Non-verbal movements and postures, through the eyes, facial expressions, and what we think and radiate. Here, the degree of our insight depends on the level of our sensitivity and perception.

 Am I open to feedback? How selective and conditioned am I about what I listen to?

We are all subject to mental and psychological filters that affect the quality and depth of our feedback. For example, while one person is open only to ‘good’ feedback, another may be compulsive in the way they seek feedback about their weaknesses. Also, some only want to give it and are not interested in receiving it.

It’s Deeply Integrated Into Our Basic Constitution
The ability to give, receive and process feedback is integrated into the basic constitution of human physiology. One prime example is the interaction between the brain and the body via the nervous system. The brain executes millions of operations per second that rely on the feedback travelling to and fro along the nervous system. At another level, the body’s instinct works by reacting to feedback; for example, when we touch a hot iron and the hand is quickly withdrawn by reflex action.

Focus On Facts
Giving and receiving feedback is a large and complex territory with many nuances, calling for the development of self-awareness, observational skills, understanding others, sensitivity, the ability to communicate clearly and constructively and interpersonal respect, to name a few.

An exercise for improving observational skills: for a set period of time, describe to yourself what you are seeing, feeling and hearing, using exact factual language. As an example: “Whenever Susan does not agree with me the look that comes out of her eyes hardens”.  Pay attention to what is not being done and said. Often what a person is not saying or doing says more about their attitude than what they do. Repeat until perception of the exact facts and details of what is happening around you becomes second nature.

Seeking feedback and being willing to give it revolves around one of the most remarkable qualities of human beings, which is the ability to self-correct. It is this that makes it possible for us to learn, improve, develop and evolve, to be what we want to be and fulfill our visions. At the heart of this process lies the facility to learn from our mistakes without getting bogged down in guilt, shame, regret or self-punishment.

Self-correction works by the rapid assimilation of new perspectives and new self-awareness, leading to higher levels of consciousness for which being slowed down or derailed by regret about a ‘failure’ is essentially a waste of our precious time. This in no way advocates abdicating from responsibility or necessary admissions, but suggests that we locate our centre of gravity – our ‘critical mass processes’ – in the insistence to turn learning opportunities into inspiring successes.

One of the signs of real personal development is the ability to learn from experience.

1. At core, each of us is a spiritual being who works on a positive principle. Therefore, in  giving someone feedback, always start with what is positive and what works, never what doesn’t. This isn’t to say that when giving feedback to someone, you start by just highlighting all their wonderful qualities. It is more to do with the reason why you give feedback, and how you do it, e.g. the tone of your voice, the content of your radiation, your facial expressions, and what comes out of your eyes…

2. The surprising aspect of feedback is that it highlights behavioural traits that we may be unaware of – at least not to how it comes across to others. Therefore, in asking for and receiving feedback, be prepared to hear the unexpected!

3. Before offering feedback, use your sensitivity to discern whether or not the person concerned is open to it, and then how to give it. Each person is different, so some prefer feedback to be bold while others need to receive it very sensitively. Set up a time where there is sufficient space to give it, bearing in mind that someone on the receiving end may well have questions to help them gain maximum benefit from your valuable input.

4. In some situations, feedback does not depend on a person asking for it, but is required as part of a team agreement. The dynamics of such feedback are not dealt with in these guidelines.

5. When giving feedback, be specific. Avoid generalizations such as, “You are always like this [or that]”, or “Everyone thinks you are always like this [or that]”. The way to conduct a useful and effective feedback session is by providing specific examples in a clear and accurate way, e.g. “Yesterday in the meeting, the way you reacted to Doreen was a bit harsh and did not give her the space to express herself”.

6. Unless explicitly asked to represent others as well, never speak on behalf of others – always come from yourself when giving feedback.

7. When you say, for example, “I find you to be far too reactive,” you fix the other person in what is essentially a judgmental perception. When you say instead, “You come across to me as being too reactive in this matter,” you create space for them to make a constructive adjustment, if they want to.

8. When you receive feedback, unless the situation clearly calls for it, there is no need toexplain yourself or to apologize. Mostly, this merely indicates that you are not getting the point. Just listen and decide whether to use all or any part of what you’re told. If you know you will use it, make an acknowledgement of the value you have for it, and for the time and effort the person took to give it to you.

9. Be careful about the boldness, depth and scope of any feedback you are about to give. Sometimes, the person receiving it may not be able to handle feedback they consider confrontational, in spite of them saying they want it ‘straight’. So, it’s wise to begin with a small, sensitive, well- articulated dose then feel your way through the session to sense how much more can be put across without causing emotional or psychological difficulty.

10. When needing to give tough feedback, explain first that this is what you are going to do. Be straight, clear, gentle-firm, and keep to the point. Bear in mind it may be that the person on the receiving end needs your support – so be ready to give it and offer a shoulder to lean on if required.

11. Giving feedback to someone you do not get on well with – or outright dislike – is awonderful development opportunity. Be extra careful not to fall into the trap of ‘unloading’ any dislikes or hidden criticisms. Being able to give your best in such a  situation can contribute to the re-constitution of interpersonal respect and good dealings.

12. If you are a manager or leader, your ability to ask for and receive feedback has a major impact on your effectiveness. Managers not open to feedback eventually become isolated and disconnected from the truth of what is happening around them.

13. When you need to offer uncomfortable feedback to a superior and you fear that doing so may prove to be costly to your next promotion, you need to make a clear-cut decision to do so without fear. Demonstrate to your superior that you really care. Feeling the reason why you offer it will help them to open up. The few that don’t may not last long in any meaningful position – this is a clear trend in play at this time.

14. Whenever possible, be as humorous, graphic and colourful as you can while preparing or giving feedback. Train yourself to use analogies such as: “You came across a bit like an eagle in an aquarium” “That motivational pitch came across like a dose of sleeping pills”

15. Be careful to not fall into the trap of trying to change another person. Give feedback to help them to improve in being the best that they can be, rather than to try to push them away from themselves to suit someone else’s vision about them.

Lastly, not all problems can be solved by feedback. There are situations for which other methods are required, such as giving clear instructions, or making known the consequences of non-improvement in behaviour or performance.

Constructive feedback is a catalyst for improvement

David Gommé
World Copyright 2013© David Gommé

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