Here's a question guaranteed to make your stomach lurch: "Would you mind if I gave you some feedback?"
What that actually means is "Would you mind if I gave you some negative feedback, wrapped in the guise of constructive criticism, whether you want it or not?"
The problem with criticism is that it challenges our sense of value. Criticism implies judgment and we all recoil from feeling judged. As Daniel Goleman has noted, threats to our esteem in the eyes of others are so potent they can literally feel like threats to our very survival.
The conundrum is that feedback is necessary. It's the primary means by which we learn and grow. So what's the best way to deliver it in a way that it provides the greatest value — meaning the recipient truly absorbs and acts on it?
There are three key behaviors, I believe, and they're each grounded in the recognition that what we say is often less important than how we say it.
1. The first mistake we often make is giving feedback when we are feeling that our own value is at risk. That's a recipe for disaster, and it happens far more commonly than we think, or are aware.
If we're feeling threatened or diminished by another person's perceived shortcomings, providing "constructive criticism" becomes secondary to getting our value back. We're more likely to be reactive, insensitive and even hurtful.
If it's about us, it's not truly about them. Any time we provide feedback with the goal of getting someone to better meet our needs, rather than being responsive to theirs, it's unlikely to prompt the desired outcome.
A classic example is the parent who confuses his own worth with his child's performance, and reacts to the child's missteps with harshness and judgment rather than sensitivity and compassion.
2. The second mistake we make in giving feedback is failing to hold the other person's value in the process. Even the most well-intentioned criticism will, more often than not, prompt us to feel our value is at risk, and under attack.
When that happens, the primal impulse is to defend ourselves. The more the person you are criticizing feels compelled to defend her value, the less capable she becomes of absorbing what she's hearing.
I once had an employee who was highly competent and detail-driven, and rarely made mistakes. Partly this grew out of her fierce perfectionism and her outsize fear of the consequences of being wrong.
Her automatic instinct was to deny responsibility for any misstep. When I felt the need to bring one to her attention, I learned it was crucial to begin by reassuring her that I cared about her, and that I had continuing confidence in her abilities. Only then could she truly take in what I was saying.
When you're inclined to offer specific feedback, pause and ask yourself first how you'd feel if someone gave you that feedback. If you would feel uncomfortable or defensive, assume anyone else would too.
3. The third mistake we make is to assume that we're right about whatever it is we're inclined to say. Like lawyers, we take a series of facts and weave them together into a story that supports and justifies the case we're seeking to make.
The problem is that our stories aren't necessarily true. They're simply one interpretation of the facts. It makes much more sense to think about offering feedback in a spirit of humble exploration rather than declaration, dialogue rather than monologue, curiosity rather than certainty. Humility is the recognition that we don't know, even when we think we know. As Steven Covey says, "Seek first to understand."
Ultimately, we'd be better off eliminating concepts like "feedback" and "constructive criticism" from our lexicons altogether. They're polarizing, and mostly destructive. We need to think of these interchanges instead as opportunities for honest inquiry and genuine learning.
"Here's the story I'm telling myself about what just happened," we might say. "Have I got that right, or am I missing something?"
That's exactly what I intend to say the next time I'm inclined to ask someone, "Would you mind if I gave you some feedback?"
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