Why Won’t You Talk To Me?

(For Peter, who inspires me and keeps asking me to remind him of this content)

It doesn’t have to be like this. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.
Pink Floyd, Keep Talking

Relationships thrive on communication. The closer I am to people, the more I work with them and spend time with them, the more likely it is that at some point they’ll have some information to share with me about what I could do better (e.g. “stop stepping on my toes,” or “maybe stop using the phrase ‘that should be easy’ for any work you’re not doing yourself”). I depend on that feedback to get better — to optimize, or to correct, what I do.

There are three conditions necessary to handling feedback well that I’ve found are useful to think about. The absence of any one of these will deter ongoing feedback. They are:

  1. Feedback must be safe to deliver. If the response to feedback is anger, threats, actual retaliation, or even too-strong self-castigation, further feedback is less likely to occur.
  2. Feedback must be as easy to deliver as possible. I once had a coworker who, when I’d offer him feedback, argued with me incessantly about details, and about whether or not my opinions were valid, or defensible. And after a while, I learned my lesson and stopped sharing my opinions with him.
  3. Feedback must result in positive change. The first two points above lower the cost and risk of feedback. But even if feedback is low-risk, and low-cost, there’s still some cost, if only in time spent, associated with giving feedback. If someone learns that giving you feedback doesn’t result in any changes … they’ll learn not to give you feedback. It’s that simple.

While I discuss this in the context of feedback, my experience suggests this is true for all communication.

What Failure Looks Like

On my first week in a new company, my boss asked me to join him for an informal and collaborative architecture review for a new design Andrew was responsible for. We spent about an hour going over the goals for the project and how Andrew was going to accomplish them, and then someone asked for my opinion and I said, inartfully, “it’s not necessarily the most elegant approach to solving this problem, but it will definitely solve this problem.” I was told within a day or so that Andrew was offended by my statement (not by Andrew himself). I apologized, and we built a decent relationship. And I dialed down the candor dramatically around him for the next few years.

Bill would argue with you just for the sport of it. I remember saying something off the cuff and him arguing with me about it for about 15 minutes, forcing me to hunt for references and supporting materials, only to have him eventually note he was in agreement with me the whole time. Working with him made me better, and made me better able to support my arguments. It also made it so I would mostly not raise topics with him unless it was important, because doing so was expensive. Efficiency fail.

Chris learned to stop arguing with feedback. But he still never actually did anything with the feedback I gave him. I remember having a conversation where I said “good job making it easier to give you feedback, but you still seem to ignore it, so I don’t really get value out of doing it. I’m probably going to stop doing it.” It doesn’t matter how much you lower the cost of performing this activity. If there’s no followthrough, there’s probably a better way to spend your time.

Discussing in the Moment

Some people seem to feel strongly that the only proper response to feedback is a minimalist one (one of my favourite people holds strongly to the belief that the only response appropriate is “Thank you.”). Given the issue above around efficiency of giving feedback, the concern around increasing the cost of giving feedback is real and valid.

The downside, however, is that one may come across as not particularly caring, or engaged. “Thank you” can easily come across as a rote response that translates to a version of “OK, thanks, I’m not planning to do anything with this.”

Personally, I’ve not found a downside to discussing the feedback in the moment with the other person, as long as

  • It’s clear that I’m seeking more information to flesh out the feedback;
  • It’s clear I’m taking it seriously and am committed to doing something about it;
  • Any clarification is on their side — it’s OK for me to ask questions. It’s not OK to try to explain, or justify, or persuade them the feedback is misplaced.

That said, I’m comfortable with momentous ad-hoc discussions. Others who need more time to think could legitimately respond with some version of “thank you, I’ll think about it and let you know what I’m taking away from this and will do about it by next Friday.” Not doing so risks giving the other person an impression you didn’t take them seriously. Remember, demonstrating that their effort resulted in value is critical in continuing to encourage them to keep talking.