Giving Feedback Is Hard. Really Hard
Or… why we try so hard to avoid giving it
Here I am, lying awake in bed since 4AM. My brain is busy working through a problem with our neighbour. He loves cars. And most of all, he loves to tinker with cars. His hobby transforms the dead end street we share with him into a car park. And more often than not, into a full-blown car garage.
Why am I telling you this? Because it comes down to one single thing we can do to improve the situation… Talk to our neighbour and tell him about our concerns. Give feedback.
Truth is, giving feedback is hard. The reason why I am lying awake is not that I have the “I need to give feedback” moment. No, that realisation came a few weeks ago. The reason is because I am putting it off. Day after day, week after week. Always finding another excuse.
We worry about how our feedback is received. We fear the reaction. Maybe nothing will change. Or it could worsen the situation.
We want feedback to be received well and to influence change.
These desired outcomes hinge a lot on the kind of relationship you are having with the other person. Relationships — there is a lot to them. For this article though, we are only concerned about one dimension: how close you are with someone.
Let us come back to my sleepless night. On the closeness scale, I would classify the relationship with my neighbour as distant. We greet each other in passing and had a few short conversations. But nothing to build any kind of connection. Giving feedback should be easy, right? Less attachment means less worry.
Not for me. I find the opposite to be true. I put off talking to him because I do not know him well enough. Why does he own these many cars? Is he running a small business? Why does he love cars? What else does he value?
When we are giving feedback in distant relationships, we fear that we miss the mark. That we do not influence change because we do not know any of the backstories.
OK, we covered distant relationships. Surely, it gets easier when you are close to someone. Not quite. The other end of the scale is equally as tricky.
Happens to me every time I am trying to give feedback to my wife. A good example is my disliking when she looks at her phone instead of me when we have a conversation.
This time I am more worried about it being received well. I am afraid to speak up because I do not want to hurt my wife. I am worried our relationship takes a hit. Even only for a short time.
The two examples illustrate the extremes of the closeness scale. Being close to someone means you are worrying about the feedback being received well. Being distant puts more worry on the desire to influence change. Of course, there are lots and lots of relationship types in between. But no matter how close you are to someone, giving feedback always takes courage.
Giving feedback is hard. We covered that.
Good news is, there is an approach to maximise your chances of a good delivery. To ensure your feedback is received well and influences change.
This approach is independent of your relationship to someone else. But it is a little counter-intuitive at first. The key is to talk about the impact on yourself and your feelings. Yes, Feelings.
This might sound a bit odd… Is not feedback all about telling the other person how they should behave? Let them know what they have done wrong? Make them aware that you know better than them?
Problem is, people do not like to be told what they should do. Most of us react pretty badly if someone highlights our shortcomings. When we provide feedback like this, we should be scared of giving it. Of course, there is a high chance the other person gets offended. Try putting yourself in the same situation.
The only way someone really takes in what you have to say, is to talk about yourself. In particular your feelings. You have to share the impact on you. Not what that person did wrong.
The framework I like to use for this is SBI. Describe the Situation as it happened, the Behaviour you observed, and the Impact it had on you. And the best way to share impact is by sharing your feelings. It is that simple.
Let me illustrate this concept with the two previous examples.
My neighbours car obsession…
Bad Feedback. “Hey. I have to say you’re a pretty bad neighbour for having so many cars. I think you should sell a few because frankly, who needs so many of them and it’s pretty annoying to us.”
Better Feedback. “Hey mate. How are things? Do you have five minutes to chat about something? I wanted to talk to you about the car situation. We feel a bit disrespected because our shared dead-end turns into a car park or even a garage most days. For example, this past Saturday.”
Very different, right? And while I am addressing the situation in both cases, chances are that the second version is more successful. No one can argue with your feelings!
Conversations with my wife (and the phone)…
Bad Feedback. “Can’t you just put your phone away when we talk to each other? I really don’t like it and frankly, you’re spending too much time on that thing anyways.”
Better Feedback. “Hey darling. Sorry for the sidetrack, but I must say I feel frustrated and insignificant when we have a conversation and you are on your phone at the same time.”
Again, the core of the message stays the same. But the way it is delivered makes all the difference.
Giving feedback can be scary. We try to avoid it wherever we can. And it does not matter what kind of relationship we have with the intended receiver.
Luckily, there is an easy way to improve your feedback. To make sure it is received well and influences change. The key is to use the Situation, Behaviour, Impact (SBI) framework and, most importantly, talk about your feelings.