Getting Over the Valley of Feedback Death

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.

Aside: The Role of Trust

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.

  • “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.
  • “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.

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.

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

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.



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Dads, husbands, teachers, fighter pilots.