Giving feedback lovingly

Office-style feedback, closer to home.

We got feedback training at work recently. Led by two of the kindest peeps in the office, Jennifer Dennard and Will Kabat-Zinn, we got a crash course in giving feedback to each other.

A lot of the advice on giving feedback revolved around using a specific formula to deliver it * :

When you _____, I feel _____ because _____. [I recommend _____.]

Sounds silly and mechanical, right? Most of the office bubbled with polite skepticism and immediately dug into how this formula does and does not work for various situations.

I’m writing now to describe how I’ve seen it be super effective in a high trust relationship, between my SO, Luke, and I. We’ve have been using it for months at home since he got feedback training at his office.

What stuff do we give each other feedback about?

All sorts. Whatever comes to mind. Whenever anything the other person does something that influences us and we feel feel a surge of affect, positive or negative.

Sometimes it’s to encourage behavior that makes us feel good.

I feel really happy when you are comfortable in my parents’ kitchen and chat with them while being naturally yourself, puttering around and helping.

Sometimes it’s mildly critical.

When I’m telling you a story and you check your phone, I feel hurt because it makes me suspect I’m boring you. I suggest you either flag boredom earlier, or tell me what’s so urgent on your phone.

Sometimes it’s to recognize a pattern that works, and to mark it as something we want to make a habit.

When, at the end of the workday, you tell me that you’re really tired and not in a good mood, I’m sad because I worry for you, but I’m also relieved because now that I know, we can handle it better together. I’d like it if you always remember to do that.

Sometimes it’s just a little pet peeve.

When you leave your stuff on the floor, I feel really grossed out and annoyed because your stuff collects dust bunnies, and then I imagine you throwing all the gross into the air when you eventually pick it up. Please pile your stuff on any piece of furniture instead.

And sometimes it surfaces a serious tension between competing interests.

When you stay late at work, you use up all your energy, and then you end up being really unpleasant by the end of the night. This makes my night really crappy, because I share the baggage of your exhaustion when you come home. Please don’t work late so often, and when you do, let’s try not to engage too much with each other afterwards.

We’ve actually been doing this so much that, lately, it’s funny and nice more often than not.

When you ask me a bunch of questions when we’re out eating, and then eat all my food while I’m talking, I feel sad and hungry at the end. I need more time to eat and can’t keep up with you. I recommend you either talk more, or catch yourself when you start auto-pilot-eating my food.

This works for us. Even though we know each other really well, we don’t know everything. Actions that seem inconsequential to us have impacts, positive or negative, and something powerfully concrete happens in our minds when we put them into words for each other.

As the recipient, we have to admit to the facts and recognize each other’s feelings, whether or not we agree with them. Feedback helps us understand each other better and gives us more chances to change and be better for each other.

Feedback usually isn’t fun, but thinking on it and delivering it can de-escalate bad situations.

Obviously, we need to give feedback the most when someone’s behavior is impacting us negatively, but it’s also hardest to do when you’re emotionally charged. When the situation is still hot, less constructive responses seem like they might be more satisfying and fun to deliver. The formula can be a powerful check on our emotional selves.

One day, Luke and I were out bicycling in SF. It was a casual outing that should have been pleasant and fun. However, less than 10 minutes in, we found ourselves stuck on a sidewalk, with me about to say lots of angry things, my unfortunate natural inclination when I get upset at my better-tempered better-half.

Fortunately, before I opened my damn mouth, I realized this situation was perfect for formulaic feedback. I’m rather proud to say I ended up much more coherent as I rather stiffly delivered the following:

When you follow me closely on my bicycle and tell me what to do, I feel really stressed, self-conscious and insecure about my ability to bike on the street because I’m already nervous as I practice biking better and focus on the road. I recommend giving me some space and reserving bike-related advice for after we’re off the streets.

Filling in the blanks brought understandable, actionable structure to what my brain first proposed, which was, “STOP ******* TELLING ME WHAT TO DO, DUMB-BUTT. DON’T YOU SEE THE CARS?!”

Now, when I feel myself about to say something emotional and nasty, I tell myself, “Put it into the formula. You might not see it now, but it fits, somehow, and what you want to say is going to be way more effective when you escape your anger-cloud and figure it out.”


Giving structured feedback can be hard because you need to be vulnerable

Out of these four blanks, can you guess what’s the hardest to fill in?

  1. When you _____
  2. I feel _____
  3. because ______
  4. I recommend ______

Guessed yet?

If you’re anything like us, it’s relatively easy to figure out the facts and point at the source of badness, and it’s even easier to tell the other person what we’d like them to do (at least initially) and why, but feelings end up surprisingly hard to put into words.

How do you muster up the courage to tell someone that their offhand comment really hurt your feelings?
How do you voice disappointment and dissatisfaction?
How do you admit that a rather inconsequential action caused you to feel shame or embarrassment?

You’re going to be tempted to skip the feelings part and stick to the facts and advice. Don’t.

Your feelings might sound stupid in your head. They’re not.

If you want the feedback to stick, the feelings are just as important as an accurate recount of the facts and justification for advice.


Why your feelings matter

Feedback doesn’t change behavior if the recipient doesn’t care, and why would the recipient care if you haven’t given them reason to? The impact, which is often emotional instead of purely functional, is arguably what makes any of this matter at all.

More stories as an example: We used to fight a lot in the kitchen. A lot. Somehow, despite both enjoying food and cooking, whenever we were in there together, within half an hour, one of us storms out in a huff.

Let’s imagine our many kitchen-complaints and requests without feelings:

You never like any of my food suggestions. Why can’t you just say yes when I propose I want to cook something?
You keep telling me how to do stuff, like chop or mix or fry food, your way. Would you stop trying to optimize everything?
I had to throw out a bunch of vegetables because we didn’t use them in time and they went bad. Would you ration better so that we don’t do that anymore?

All reasonable requests, but it’s easy for me/him to respond with take-downs:

Well, I didn’t like your suggestions. Am I supposed to lie?
You *were* being inefficient. Don’t you want to be better at this?
It’s not a big deal. It’s a 50 cent tomato, for goodness sake.

Now add the feelings back.

When you don’t like any of my food suggestions, it makes me suspect you hate my cooking. When nothing works, I feel ineffective and constrained in our kitchen.
When you tell me how to do something better in the kitchen, I feel criticized and it stops being fun. I also feel like my creativity is being stifled because I feel forced to optimize instead.
I don’t like wasting food, and it makes me feel really guilty and wasteful when we have to throw out a sad tomato.

If you care about the person telling you this, do you still have the heart to rebut or discount the accusation? Can you keep ignoring it?

The feelings portion of the formula makes repeated feedback about different instances of the behavior matter, individually, and voicing them has helped us decompose and circumvent badness. Being vulnerable and describing feelings helps us learn together what works and doesn’t work, and why.


How much trust is enough, and can this work with coworkers?

I think I’ve flexed the feedback muscle often enough at home that it’s become second nature there, but I’ve found it harder at work. It’s no less important to deliver workplace feedback, but I found myself struggling unless there’s an unusually high level of rapport and trust.

I’m even more tempted to keep the feelings out of it. It feels like, with coworkers, it’s very important to bring it back to “concrete reality,” citing actual consequences instead of straight feelings. Both the quality of the relationship and shared attitude towards it are not as guaranteed, so I feel compelled to provide more context. I’m thus more likely to be vague about feelings, but concrete about how those feelings impact my subsequent behavior in a way undesirable to everyone involved.

I’m still cracking this nut, and have a lot of personal homework to do: both to be more trusting (believing that we have shared good-intention, and are all reasonable people) and more bold (believing that the feedback is important enough to deliver).

I hope my coworkers will continue to be caring enough to handle my clumsy floundering.


* The topic of good feedback is way more nuanced than stuffing things into a formula, and I’m conscious of blasting a lot of it with this simplification. Without going too deeply into anything, other considerations for both parties include:

  • Feedback should be true, with feelings and facts clearly differentiated. “Is it me, or is it real?”
  • Consider the objective of the work/relationship between the giver and receiver.
  • Is the feedback actionable and useful for the recipient?
  • Is each person in the right emotional state for feedback?
  • Is it the right time/place to give feedback?
  • How is my tone of voice/body language as I deliver feedback?
  • Have I asked questions?
  • Have I offered help?
  • Identify next steps at the end.
  • ALWAYS SAY THANK YOU.

A last note I want to make is a reminder from Jamie that feedback is like any other protocol, and it’s important for people who use it to respect the Robustness principle, which needs no paraphrasing to apply here:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept from others.