Getting Over the Valley of Feedback Death

A Fighter Pilot’s Guide to Feedback — And the Three Types of Receivers…which are you?

People will think and say the critical things they think and say — but do they say them to you? Or just behind your back? If people are critical about you behind your back is it their fault or yours? Regardless of blame, would you prefer they said those things to your face? Can you help that happen? Effective feedback involves much more than just thoughtful critiques and suggestions — in fact that is by far the easiest part. Feedback is a very personal interaction between two or more people, and for the true benefit of this powerful action to be realized, each party has a part. Actually, each party has two parts.

The cycle of feedback is a two step dance, starting with the giver and then alternating with the receiver. The giver has an idea, which consists of an observed critique (at a minimum) and ideally a suggestion for improvement. The receiver then has to invite feedback, either overtly or simply via presence. The giver then has to present the feedback, and finally the receiver has to accept and act on the feedback. If any of these steps are broken, the value of the feedback is lost.

The Feedback Cycle: Idea, Invite, Give, Receive
The Feedback Cycle

The Giver

It is easy for most people to be critical of someone else’s work, and often quite easy to come up with suggestions for improvement. Also, as counterintuitive as it sounds, having great ideas is really not that important. The idea that the observer (the Giver, in this case) has all the answers is typically false, as they are sure to be missing some considerations and factors that the actor (the Receiver) has thought through. It can even be counterproductive for a giver of feedback to present their opinion of a complete solution, as it stymies conversation, engenders (unfortunately) defensiveness, and can hurt the Giver’s credibility. So if the point of critical feedback is not to shine light on a weakness and present an alternative solution to the current path, then what is it? Well, it is the first half, shine light on a weakness, but the next step is simply to have a conversation. The solution developed by combining world views, considerations, and ideas is more effective and educational than a packaged solution handed from one party to another. The goal of the Giver, then, is to shine light on a weakness, present some possible additional observations and perspectives (Why is this approach is failing? What else should we be considering?), and then to open the door for a follow on conversation. Seems easy enough, but in reality is is very difficult.

The challenge in giving feedback is not so much in the content, but in the delivery. The fact is, it is very difficult to look someone in the eye and give them an honest and critical assessment of their work. This is especially more so when you have a peer or personal relationship with the Receiver and when they have poured their heart and soul into the work, making it feel more like an assessment of them than an assessment of their work. Giving feedback is difficult because it hurts. It hurts the Receiver’s feelings, it hurts your relationship with them, it hurts their confidence, it hurts the carefree and fun work environment, etc.

This point, unfortunately, is where most feedback dies. This is the valley of death of feedback: a relevant, critical observation is not worth the awkward pain associated with bringing it up. But the hurt associated with this step is no different than the pain of exercise. It is uncomfortable, stressful, and painful, but it makes everyone involved stronger. This is where the Receiver enters the picture as a critical player in the feedback dance.

Aside: The Role of Trust

If you think of the Giver and Receiver as two nodes in a network, then the connective path between them is built with Trust. If you trust someone, i.e. you trust that they have good intentions, that they are thoughtful, and that they care about you, then you will open that pipe and let the feedback in. On the other hand, if that pathway of trust is not developed, then routine feedback is likely to fail. The exception is feedback not intended to change someone’s approach, but intended to change actions. You can think of this more like an order, where the Giver doesn’t need the Receiver to agree or even believe, but only to understand the direction and execute. This, of course, should be reserved for critical situations and those where a pipeline of trust may not have been built. As such, two categories of feedback are:

Casual Feedback: This is non-scheduled, ad hoc communication from someone the Receiver trusts. This feedback is presented in a way that’s easy to hear, understand, and in a supportive and caring manner, such as “I noticed something today and I’d like to offer my thoughts because I want to see you reach your full potential, do you have time to talk about it?”

Immediate Feedback: This is often provided in short burst of words, direct and to the point, and may invoke a defensive response from the receiver. The giver is providing a specific correction or direction because they want something to be changed immediately in order to achieve an end state or result that may not be fully realized by the receiver. The challenge in this type of feedback is to use it only when necessary and to ensure the Receiver understands that the Giver is using this mode because there isn’t time or ability to use another method. Excessive use Immediate Feedback (“do as I say”) can result in diminished trust and morale.

The Receiver

Too often, people view the receiver of feedback as a passive role in the process: simply there to hear feedback and either choose to use it or not. And if you, as a leader, worker, peer, spouse, etc, feel that way about receiving feedback then you probably don’t get too much of it! Back to the beginning, the fact that you don’t get feedback does not mean you are doing a great job — in fact it could be the opposite — on the contrary you probably are inspiring feedback, it is just dying in the valley of death. And in the worst case, it is being discussed in groups behind your back, where it often gains momentum and worsens. I hope it is clear that it is better to hear critical feedback than to not hear it, even though it hurts.

So how do you, as a receiver, open the door to receiving feedback? This begins with identifying which type of receiver you are, and there are three:

  • “No Thanks” — You don’t want feedback. This can be because you don’t value the other person’s inputs, you don’t want to go through the emotional pain of hearing it and acting on it, or you truly think you’ve got it made. Clearly this is relationship and situationally dependent. You may seek feedback from your supervisor but “no thanks” your five year old.
  • “Validate Me” — You pretend you value and seek feedback, but truly only want positive feedback and validation. This is due to the twisted nature of our egos. We realize that seeking feedback is a sign of maturity and should be revered, and we use that effect to improve our own image, all while we are too insecure to truly face the fire. It could also be a hand-waived effort to show commitment to a feedback culture without dealing with the pain (no pain no gain) of truly going through the process.

But wait, the Giver doesn’t know my type, so how can I truly get away with this? If I ask for feedback they’ll lay it on, right? And that defeats the purpose of trying to get validation.

Wrong. The Giver does know your type. It is inherent in the way you ask for feedback, which we’ll get to shortly. Also, most Givers assume you are “Validate Me” because so many of us are. So if you’re not, you need to prove it.

  • “No Really” — You genuinely want to hear the hard truth. You know it will hurt, but you know it is the only way to live. You want all the cards on the table so you can make your best fully-educated decision on what and how to change.

Let’s start with “Validate Me” (we’ll hit “No Thanks” later; plus if you’re a “No Thanks” you’re probably not reading this paper). “Validate Me” is the default, and most everyone will assume this is what they’re dealing with. This is why when someone casually asks you for feedback after a presentation, for example, you will most likely say something validating, like “oh that was great, they seemed very engrossed and the slides were just magical”. First of all, this is bad positive feedback (a subject for another time), but more importantly, this is probably not what you really think. You just don’t want to pick up the weights for a painful, though truthful, feedback session.

We are crossing streams here, talking about both the Giver and the Receiver. But in this case, taking the perspective of the Giver (of feedback) is helpful to underscore the importance of the Receiver’s invitation. If you truly are a “Validate Me”, then continue with the casual “how was that?” approach that we’ve all seen. You will get validation. But if you want to push yourself into “No Really” territory, then you need to change the way you invite feedback.

Crossing the Divide to “No Really”

It is impossible to become “No Really” overnight, sorry to say. You cannot instantly inspire family, peers, subordinates, even supervisors to jump into the deep end of painful, honest feedback, even if they are the Giver. They will assume you are “Validate Me” and they will naturally avoid the perceived confrontation of critical feedback. So you have to work on them a bit.

Enter the chicken and the egg. The best way to inspire free-flowing critical feedback is to respond well to the same feedback. If you dig in or get defensive with feedback, the pain level increases, the apparent value decreases, and it will not be worth the Giver’s effort. But if you use feedback as a gateway to both thank the Giver for their insight and strike up an interesting and productive conversation about a topic they clearly care about, all while minimizing the pain by remaining positive, supportive and acceptive, then you will be rewarding the Giver for their effort and you will inspire more in kind!

Because the chicken of responding to feedback happens after the egg of the Giver giving feedback (and I do believe the egg came first, empirically) then we are in a bit of a catch-22. But that’s okay, because all you need is one tiny opening act of feedback to demonstrate your willingness to embrace it. To get this grain, simply ask a question in such a way that the only answer is critical. Instead of “do you have any feedback for my presentation?”, try “if you had to remove one part of that presentation, what would you remove?”. This doesn’t unlock the full scope of feedback (maybe they wouldn’t remove anything, but instead they would add something, or get rid of your verbal tick, or change the way you respond to audience questions, etc) but it does get the ball moving. Make them answer the question, and if they absolutely cannot think of something to remove, in this case, then switch the action and ask what they would add. You are twisting their arm to give you at least some small piece of critical feedback. (Maybe you’ll get feedback on the arm twisting later, but that’s fine).

When they finally give in and answer, it is time to show them that giving critical feedback is not painful. Here are some keys:

  • Thank them for the feedback
  • Assume they are correct — always start from a mindset that anyone giving you feedback is correct. Always.

There is a natural response to try and figure out for yourself if the feedback is correct. This is precisely the opposite of accepting feedback. It doesn’t matter who is “correct”, it only matters if you understand the feedback. Assume the feedback is correct and move forward to understanding and continuing a discussion.

  • Run with it. There is a great improv comedy trick called “Yes, And...” The idea is that whatever your improv partner presents, you respond with “yes, and…”, following their lead but adding your spin or direction. It keeps everyone engaged and rewards all inputs. The same is needed for an effective feedback conversation. Reply with agreement and then continue forward with something constructive, such as:
  • Stating another reason why you find their feedback valid
  • Expanding their feedback to another area or level
  • Asking a question to further understand their point

This positive response is not an attempt to placate the Giver and give them a false sense of appreciation, this is truly the most effective way to receive the feedback! This positive, accepting type of response will fire off conversation that will, without a doubt, result in a more thorough and effective set of recommendations than if you just said “thank you” and walked off. It also frames your own mindset (and theirs) as one of collaborative progress, ready to explore new ways to improve, which is what this whole feedback thing is about.

This is a huge step and, with continued discipline to respond appropriately, will result in better and more honest feedback. As you continue to inspire and receive feedback, you will be able to retract the training wheel approach to inviting the feedback and accept more general comments. Perhaps the first request is for “something you’d remove”, the second is “what would you change in the content?”, the third is “what would fix about my delivery?”, and eventually “what could I have done better?” After that you may not even have to ask, because you’ve built a trusting relationship with this person where they see almost no pain in bringing critical feedback and may even enjoy the process. This is the ultimate victory, where feedback flows freely and casually because the value is clear, the process is painless, and the door is always open.

Building the trust, comfort, and relationship with people to give this feedback is very much a one on one exercise. But eventually, when enough people in the family, team, organization, etc, realize the power of feedback and the fact that it is truly desired and appreciate, then it will become part of the fabric of the group. New team members will see it, realize that it is normal, and will go with the flow. Remember, it all starts with one example and the discipline to truly want and embrace feedback. That example will spread and lay the groundwork for a truly feedback-driven organization.

What about the “No Thanks”?

We said we’d return to the “No Thanks”. And because we don’t expect that group of Receivers to initiate the feedback process, we will address the Givers.

How do you give feedback to someone that shows no desire to receive it or receives it defensively or aggressively? First, when you think that someone is being defensive or aggressive towards your feedback, don’t take it personally. Instead, think the same way you would as a Receiver: “that is correct.” Some days or better than others for all people and we have to realize that there may be situations going on in the Receiver’s life that are making it difficult for them to appreciate feedback. If you care about the feedback, meet their defensive or aggressive response with empathy.

“It seems like you’re feeling frustrated, is that correct?” Let them respond. Labeling someone’s emotions is a typical negotiation technique that attempts to open up a discussion about what the person is feeling so everyone can better understand the situation.

“I may have completely miscommunicated that last input for your presentation, can you tell me what you think you heard me say?” If you can get the receiver to tell you what they heard, often times it is not what you intended. Either way, their response will open a discussion.

If none of the above is working, and the interaction is becoming antagonistic, then it may be time to adjust your approach. First of all, ask yourself if the issue is trust. If the Receiver doesn’t trust you or your intentions, then there is little to no hope of getting through (unless you are simply making directive feedback to a subordinate, for example). If trust is the issue, then consider backing off from the feedback and instead working on establishing the missing trust. You clearly do care about the person or you wouldn’t be initiating the painful process of feedback with them, but they may not realize that in the moment. Instead of pushing the feedback, ask them how they are doing. Let them see that you are interested and truly do care. Maybe it will result in a better understanding of what is going on in their life that might be affecting their performance or willingness to accept feedback. Maybe it will open the door to conversation about the specific feedback items (if they bring it up). Or maybe it will just be another brick in the building of your relationship. The bottom line is you can’t force feedback on someone who truly is not in a place to accept it — it takes two to tango. Remember that they probably have good intentions and truly want to improve, but are lacking trust or dealing with factors, insecurities, or other challenges that are resulting in resistance. Be patient and show care.

Feedback can be a painful interaction for both parties. But just like exercise, while painful, it is the only way to get stronger. Feedback is built on trust and empathy. And while it is difficult to start a relationship of true, open, honest feedback, once that pipeline is open there is almost nothing more valuable. Furthermore it is contagious. When new team members arrive and see people giving each other open, critical feedback, receiving it without defensiveness and even with gratitude, and acting on the feedback to improve every day, they will be inspired to join in kind. And that is when a true culture of feedback is born.

As fighter pilots we treasure and rely on feedback as part of our debrief culture. This essay was written in collaboration with a few fantastic leaders, dedicated instructors, and kind friends.

Dads, husbands, teachers, fighter pilots.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store