The two sides of feedback
Let there be no doubt about this – Feedback IS useful. ANY and ALL feedback is useful. There is no doubt at all about that. And there are multiple ways in which feedback is given and received. The most important thing is the action that the recipient takes after receiving feedback.
Feedback is not only when there is a serious debate on actions, behaviours, attitudes and the like. It is used when one responds to their name being called out. So, it is integral to our ability to communicate, learn, and therefore becoming better than we were.
This article is intentionally written with a fair degree of detail, and maybe even repetitive statements at many places. And that again, is intentional. There are 2 aspects to feedback – receiving and giving. The core principles of both have been encapsulated in the two pictures here in this article. If one feels they are already very good at both receiving and giving feedback, it might still be useful to read the article. This is by no means the last word on feedback – however, it contains much knowledge obtained from experts and excellent communicators.
This most likely will reiterate one’s existing knowledge, and maybe even add to it. One will not lose anything by reading it. As Ken Blanchard says, “when you ask for something, you either break-even or make a profit.” Similarly, if by reading this article you do not learn anything new, you have broken even. And if you find even a small thing you can learn, you have made a profit.
One will not lose anything by reading it – as Ken Blanchard says, “one either breaks even or make a profit.” If they do not learn anything new, they have broken even. And if they find even a small thing they can learn, they have made a profit.
Why is feedback useful?
Humans have learnt to walk, entirely thanks to feedback that gravity gives. I am aware that I need to be sensitive to those who are not physically able to walk for various reasons. They could be challenged in a variety of ways, that makes it not possible for them to walk. This example is used in a specific context and as with any statement, being quoted out of context will give it a different hue. The intent is not to be disrespectful, dismissive or inconsiderate of those who are physically challenged and cannot walk on their own. The example of walking could be replaced with any form of learning. Feedback is an integral part of the learning process and hence I call attention to it here.
The key to walking is balance. And, then to move along with balancing. And gravity being gravity, gives feedback instantly as soon as we go “out of balance.” This feedback, and the corrections made in response, is what makes walking possible. We fell down and hurt ourselves, sometimes even badly, as we attempted to walk. And yet, while the falls might have been painful temporarily, all those falls helped us learn the ability to walk properly.
At that time, we did not complain about “gravity” being opinionated or partial or biased in its giving feedback to us. Whether we like it or not, it is this feedback that made it possible for us to walk. And gravity gives feedback without fear or favour. Whether one is young, old, able, infirm, with or without sight, sober or otherwise, gravity gives feedback. Nothing matters to gravity in giving feedback - species, race, caste, creed, religion, or any such thing at all – gravity just keeps giving feedback. Those who respect this feedback from gravity, learn, and then do things that help them become better. If only to ensure that they do not fall and hurt themselves again. Surely, feedback is important and integral to the learning process.
That’s why feedback is very useful. Regardless of the reasons that someone gives feedback it is best to receive it at the least. More on the other perspectives on feedback at a different place in this article.
Whatever one is good at is because of timely and appropriate action taken based on feedback received. To grow on a continuous basis we need to obtain periodic feedback and act on it. Stefan Einhorn in his book, “The Art of being kind” says, “There are no perfect people, and we should be on our guard against those who believe themselves to be faultless. The day we think we are our own ideal is the day we must start again from scratch. Being a thoroughly good person is a mirage - we may well strive for it, but, like seeking the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we will never reach it. But we can decide to become better people, in the knowledge that we will never be perfect. And, in the end, all we can do is our best.”
“We should be on our guard against those who believe themselves to be faultless. The day we think we are our own ideal is the day we must start again from scratch.” – Stefan Einhorn
Listening to, introspecting on, and taking action on feedback is something that each and every one of us will do well to practice. And for that, we also need people who will give us feedback. And because of how much we grow through this process, it is our duty also to do our bit in terms of giving feedback to others and help them grow. Especially to those we care about. And some thoughts on how to receive and give feedback, in an inspiring manner, is the aim of this article.
The tougher side of feedback – receiving!
There are two sides of the feedback equation – giving and receiving. Whilst I was thinking about which one I should to start with, I realised that it might be better to focus on receiving. Receiving feedback, like the messages from gravity, help each of us become better. And each of us has a choice in how we respond or react to any stimulus. So, it is appropriate to start with how it might be useful to receive, accept and act on feedback. And yes, receiving feedback is probably tougher than giving it.
When someone gives feedback, and about something that is not good, it’s most likely the initial feeling is quite unpleasant. The instinctive reaction might be to reject the feedback, or to justify one’s actions. It might be useful to pause and to reflect on the feedback that’s given before offering any response. Even if what is said or conveyed is understood as criticism, or an opinion, or stated angrily, feedback is feedback. And feedback is an external stimulus. And how each of us responds to the stimulus defines how we can grow to becoming better.
And when someone is angry while giving feedback, it is all the more reason to take notice of. And the reason for that is, when someone is angry, they are giving the recipient a peek into what really matters to them. Anger is experienced when someone does not get what they want. And while the recipient can debate whether the anger is justified or not, the person is giving us some important data about what they are feeling. And when feedback is given with anger, it is something that has been troubling them for a while. And clearly the “last straw that broke the camel’s back” that makes them communicate with anger.
How does one deal with feedback?
How does one deal with feedback that is given to them? Maybe the starting point to that is “why” one needs to deal with feedback in an appropriate and useful manner.
The “why” is simple – feedback is needed. Just like the fairy tale about the emperor’s new clothes, feedback is most useful. I have stated this before in one of my articles – Richard Boyatzis, renowned author says, “Self-assessment is not just illusional; it is delusional!” Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet, the holding company of Google, says, "One thing that people are never good at is seeing themselves as others see them. You need someone to give you feedback."
So, simply put, any and all feedback is useful. If nothing else, it allows the recipient a peek into the perspectives and thinking of the person giving the feedback. So, rejecting any feedback outright is not useful.
Richard Boyatzis, renowned author says, “Self-assessment is not just illusional; it is delusional!”
Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet, the holding company of Google, says, "One thing that people are never good at is seeing themselves as others see them. You need someone to give you feedback."
And so, according to me, a simple and effective way to handle feedback that is given, is probably:
First and foremost, remind yourself that feedback is useful for you.
Learn to practice the ability to be silent AND respectfully attentive when someone is giving feedback.
Learn to resist the temptation to rebut or reject the feedback or make personal attacks about the person giving the feedback.
Many a time when feedback is given, the response could be to point out the others’ faults and deficiencies. This is the primal “fight” syndrome that is ingrained in all. And when a person’s actions are attacked, it is perceived as an attack on them.
This happens even with the most aware people. I have done this myself in the past, until I became more aware. I have had instances where I have been “attacked” by the person to whom I was giving the feedback!
After ensuring that one practices all that, they are probably ready to listen to feedback. And in listening, it might be most useful to consider the following (as a framework, and not a formula):
Listen to the feedback with silent, yet focused and respectful attention.
Make it safe for the person giving the feedback to give it (read anecdote below about my daughter and I.)
Acknowledge the care and concern that the person giving the feedback has. Even if they are being unreasonable, it is useful to listen and understand. (for more on this in a “conflict situation” you could refer to another article of mine titled, “Conflict Management Demystified”.)
Encourage the giver of the feedback to clarify their thoughts and feelings. Ask questions to help them clarify with as much data as possible.
Constantly ensure that the person feels inspired to share feedback.
Remember: feedback is like taking a medical test – even if the reports are not great, they serve a great purpose – one can now take action and get back to being healthy. Rejecting or refusing to acknowledge the medical tests can have disastrous consequences. Similarly, with feedback.
Clarify your understanding of the feedback. Again, keep it focused on the data and the feelings of the giver of the feedback. Ensure that your understanding of the feedback is factually correct.
If possible, take the help of the person giving the feedback to identify how you could act on it. And as a friend suggested, “Maybe go back with the action plan to the person with feedback - to indicate feedback not in vain.”
If you feel that the feedback does not need any action from you, ensure that you can explain (not justify or give excuses) to the giver of the feedback the reasons you think that their perception might be less than 100% accurate. For this again, you might find some inputs in the article I have referred to earlier (“Conflict Management Demystified”.)
And finally, if the feedback is valid, remember that the real deal is when the person giving the feedback experiences for themselves the change that's been made by you. The eating of the pudding, so to say is in the eating. The proof of acting on the feedback is a testimony to your growth. And thanking the giver of the feedback ensures that they feel empowered and enthused to continue to give feedback. Whenever you feel that you do not need any more feedback, maybe useful to read the section quoted from Stefan Einhorn’s book!
The anecdote about my daughter and I
A while ago, my wife had a chat with me on something that mattered to her. And she gave me feedback. This was about something that mattered greatly to her. Thankfully, I listened for most part, without justifying or giving excuses. During this exchange, she also made a reference to our daughter also having pointed out somethings on the same lines to her.
And a couple of days later I asked my daughter a question, “Shruthi, if you felt I was doing something wrong, would you tell me about it? Or would you not feel safe to point it out to me?” I did my best to sound very casual to make it safe for her.
Her response was an eye-opener for me. She replied, “No Appa. I would not tell you. I would probably be scared to tell you.”
It hit me like lightning then – that regardless of how much I had progressed, there was still a long way to go. While one perspective on this exchange could be that she needs to have more faith in herself, I choose to take responsibility and told myself, “I have not made it safe for her to share what she thinks with me. I’d better work on this.” And I have. How do I know? I asked Shruthi again – and she said that she felt a lot safer now, and would tell me if I did something wrong.
And ever since then, I have been working on this aspect of my life. Of making it safe for those who care about me, to give me feedback. I don’t think I am anywhere near perfect yet, and the good thing is that I am focused on becoming better, and conscious and aware of it.
And yes, regarding the feedback that my wife gave me, I have worked on it and I have become better!
The seemingly easier part of feedback – Giving
This is seemingly easier to do than to receive feedback. And while this might be true for some, unfortunately, it is not so easy. And this is reflected well in the dissatisfaction of “performance appraisals” that both the “appraiser” and the “assessee” experience in the corporate world.
A common complaint about performance appraisals and feedback sessions is on the lines of what was shared by a dear friend:
“Why is it that most managers don't understand between feedback and opinions in the corporate world, when it comes to appraisals? I have in my 20 years seen that most don't understand the difference between feedback and opinions! Most managers give their opinions in appraisals! And for me, opinions are judgmental and not the right way! Attrition in companies are because of opinions of managers. The most terrible ways!”
I agreed with him and told him that my next post on this subject (the picture here titled “Inspiring Feedback Inspires”) dealt exactly with that aspect. That feedback is necessary and useful, and is different from stating one’s opinions.
Understanding, learning and “mastering” the ability to receive feedback naturally makes one better at giving feedback. And why is that so? Simply because one knows for themselves what it is like to be at the receiving end of feedback.
How could one give feedback that inspires?
First and foremost is understanding the “why” am I giving feedback to others? I had a chat with someone who made a statement, “I see so many people needing help.” At that moment, I asked, “Is it because they need help that you want to help? Or is it because you want to help that you would like to help them?”
The person was a little puzzled with this question (as maybe you, the reader is!) I explained the reason for my question. When one feels that others “need” help, maybe somewhere inside of them, they have a feeling that they are better than the others who need help. Flipping the thinking to “I want to help because I would like to help” helps one be humble while helping.
Giving feedback is of great service to the recipient. And the giver MUST take responsibility to ensure that their feedback is “inspiring.” And then, chances are that the recipient will find it inspiring too. And it will help them.
A good way, according to me, to give feedback is (again, this is a framework not a formula):
Be sincere about the concern for the other
Do it because you want to help
Think through the responses and reactions that could come up from the other. Practice role playing and understanding the other’s perspective beforehand.
Make sure that you are giving feedback and not opinions. Opinions do not always count, or help.
Once this is done, then the actual process of giving feedback could start:
Focus on the behaviour and actions rather than the person. Instead of saying “You do this…..” or “You always tend to,” it might be useful to refer to the incident, as separate from the person, and ask them for their thoughts at that time. This will make them introspect about that action or behaviour
Be politely direct in conveying the message. Be like gravity, and make sure that if the recipient is likely to fall down, that you are there like a soft mattress to cushion their fall. Remember: a person must feel good about themselves even when they are receiving feedback. And they must feel inspired to act on the feedback. The core of this is the sincerity and the kindness with which the feedback is conveyed
Back up the feedback with as many data points as possible – all the time focusing on the actions rather than the person. If there are instances that you can think of where the person has exhibited a behaviour that is useful, ensure that you call their attention to it. This will ensure that they know they are receiving a balanced feedback and not just being chastised.
At every stage, ensure that the recipient has the opportunity to ask questions to clarify their understanding. Use each of these questions to convey the care, the sincerity and that they matter.
If they ask for suggestions on how they could become better, be truthful in your suggestions. And if you do not know, let them know.
Be politely direct in conveying the message. Be like gravity, and make sure that if the recipient is likely to fall down, that you are there like a soft mattress to cushion their fall. Remember: a person must feel good about themselves even when they are receiving feedback.
Let there be no two thoughts about feedback – whether being given, or received – they are both useful. As the recipient, focus on the core message rather than the manner in which it is given. And as the giver, focus on ensuring that the sincerity is conveyed, along with data based inputs that help the person feel good about themselves, and yet inspired to make the changes that are good for them.
As with everything else, in the process of feedback also, the following words from Lao Tzu are pertinent and useful to ponder over.
Softness triumphs over hardness,
Feebleness over strength.
What is more malleable is always superior over that which is immoveable.
This is the principle of controlling things by going along with them,
…of mastery through adaptation.
- Lao Tzu
Go along and adapt:
Receive feedback like it is the best gift you have received in your life – for it is!
Give feedback with utmost care and concern – Inspire the recipient
And when in doubt, be kind to yourself, and others!