Stop screwing each other up with feedback!

Remember that argument you had with your partner. It started off about the way the dishwasher was stacked. Perhaps you threw out the following generalisation as you picked up a scum covered highball: “The dishes never wash properly when you’ve stacked the dishwasher”. This is news to your partner, who had never considered they were inept at this basic household task. They’re shocked by your criticism of their performance and fire back defensively: “Well at least I try loading the dishwasher. You haven’t taken the bins out the whole time we’ve lived here!”. And so the battle begins.

Unspecific, indirect and untimely feedback can feel like a character assassination. Photo: Death to Stock

‘Why can’t he/she just accept they’ve done a bad job stacking the dishwasher?’, you think to yourself. Determined to help them see their failings you start to pass judgment on other areas of their domestic performance. Like that time they left the car low on petrol a few years ago. You didn’t mention this at the time but it irritated you. Now you’ve uncorked this bottle, more and more reflections come pouring out to vindicate your original feedback: “You bring us all down with your little remarks. I’m not the only one that’s noticed it.”

Rather than submitting to your version of the truth, your partner wants more information — what “little remarks” and who else has “noticed”. You dance around the issue rather than admit it was your best friend who took exception to your partner calling her new Range Rover a ‘Chelsea Tractor’. As your partner probes for some substance behind your judgements you walk out of the room: “We’re done having this conversation. I was just saying you aren’t stacking the dishwasher properly but I’m sorry you can’t take some feedback!”

Doors slam. Relations are frosty for the rest of the day. And your partner’s dishwasher stacking skills don’t improve. This is a lose-lose situation. How different could the outcome have been if you’d opened the dishwasher and said: “Hmmmm I’ve noticed that the glasses have still got soap scum on them. What do you think we need to do to help them wash properly?”. Perhaps your partner would have ambled over to the dishwasher, knowing full well they stacked it. They could have looked at the glasses and noticed that many of them had fallen over during the wash, preventing them from being adequately rinsed. Based on their own observations they might have concluded: “Next time let’s stack them in this section instead to keep them upright”. Hell they might have helped you restack them to be washed again.

The problem with the original ‘feedback’ wasn’t the subject. It was the delivery. Here’s four ways we screw each other up with feedback — and tips to make feedback powerful not provocative at home and work.

Giving unspecific feedback

These comments can be directly critical (like “you bring us all down”) or less directly judgemental (like “this work isn’t good enough”). Either way they leave the receiver scratching their head about what exactly they’ve done wrong. They feel confused. They can’t act on the feedback to improve their actions or attitude because they don’t have enough information. This compounds their frustration. Throw in some overgeneralisations — ‘never’, ‘always’, ‘everyone’ — and you’ve set up the scene for crying and/or combat mode. Brace yourself!

Substitute vague comments like “you bring us all down” or “you don’t seem yourself” with a specific example: “I noticed you said you felt ‘fed up’ this morning when you left for work, what’s making you feel that way?”. It shows a genuine interest in understanding the other person’s reality rather than judging their behaviour. Crucially, the other person can reflect on that specific example to develop awareness of, and responsibility for, their own behaviour.

Padding out unspecific feedback with other ‘evidence’

The problem with being unspecific is that when your partner or colleague asks for more detail you’ve got little or nothing to give. You don’t want to look stupid or unfair so you roll out ‘related’ examples: “you’ve also been late a few times recently”; “you never get involved in family/ team events”. Feedback overload like this out of the blue is difficult to take in. It feels like a character assassination. Even if there are multiple issues you need to raise with someone, stick to one issue at a time.

Ask yourself the coach or conqueror question: do I want to help this individual develop self-awareness and responsibility for improving their future performance, or do I want to wear this individual down to accept my reflection on their past performance?

Providing untimely feedback

This is a classic mistake made in end of year reviews when employees are ambushed with performance issues from months ago. There are thousands of excuses for this — “I’m busy”, “I was trying to find the right time”, “I was frightened of their reaction”. It’s the role of the manager to prioritise having these conversations about performance — it comes with the pay cheque and it’ll make your job easier in the long run! Delaying your feedback robs the receiver of the opportunity to reflect on their own performance on a particular occasion and use this self-awareness to take control of their future behaviour.

Raise it at the time or as soon as possible afterwards, or forever hold your peace!

Delivering feedback on behalf of others

Ohhhh you’re genuinely trying to screw with someone’s head? Then go ahead and do this! It will leave the person receiving the feedback under the impression that everyone is bitching about them behind their back. This type of paranoia is a great way to destroy trust between family or team members. Indirect feedback is notoriously unspecific because it’s not based on your own direct observations. It’s based on the version of the truth you’ve been told by someone else. You’re even more likely to be vague if you’re trying to preserve the original complainant’s anonymity. This isn’t feedback with a positive intention. If your family or organisation claims to value honesty, don’t encourage a culture where feedback is given through a parent, teacher or line manager. Each of us needs to speak up from time to time to praise or seek improvements in our relationships with others. This feedback will always be far more powerful than hearing “Someone’s reported you were rude to a customer”.

Next time you’re tempted to go to someones boss to complain about them, ask yourself: would I prefer to hear feedback on my performance directly from my peer(s), or would I prefer them to go above my head with feedback on my performance?

If someone comes to you with feedback on another member of your family or team, your first question should be “How have you raised this issue with [John]?”. If they’ve made no effort and are apprehensive about raising this issue directly, follow this up with: “Direct feedback from you will be much more useful to [John] than indirectly from me. So how can I support you to give [John] that feedback?”. They might want you to come with them or just need advice on how to deliver it.

Whatever the subject, find a positive intention for giving someone feedback. Find the facts to share with them. Find the time.

Laura Rose is a coaching professional. She supports and challenges clients who are passionate and committed to getting more out of their life to do just that. This post was originally published on her blog Step 33.

Step 33: build your own adventure

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