I was once involved in a business training with about 30 other people where we spent most of the day in groups of 3 practicing new skills together.
After each round of practice, the person whose turn it had been to practice received specific feedback from the others in the group on how they did and how she or he could improve.
This was a great way to learn. It was also intimidating to have others watching you so closely, knowing they would shortly be letting you know precisely how well you did. At one embarrassing point, I even froze up completely. For a few minutes I couldn’t even remember the basics!
What I remember most, though, is a comment the instructor made that was so simple, yet powerful, that it has stuck with me.
“Giving and receiving feedback is hard.”
What makes feedback successful?
Traditionally we think of feedback as something that happens at work. Most businesses of all sizes and types struggle with the issue of how to have evaluation and feedback processes that work well.
For a feedback and evaluation process to work successfully it has to result in positive, helpful change and personal growth.
That’s simple. But not easy.
Our Society Has A Lopsided View of Feedback
One of the problems is that in our society we focus almost entirely on getting better at giving feedback. Hardly any emphasis has been given to getting better at receiving feedback.
Harvard Law School professors Sheela Heen and Douglas Stone explore this topic in their book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.
While their efforts focused on the business arena, they offer valuable insight into relationships, as well.
Relationship Success Depends On Feedback
To be successful relationships need feedback. A lot of it! Especially when you live with someone.
You need to know that what you’re doing is working for your partner. Does it make them feel good or bad?
When Doug was discouraged one of the most helpful things for him was to not be alone. The more people around him the better. Even if it meant pushing himself to attend social events in the evening after a hard day at work. Doug knew from experience that even being with strangers would help him feel better.
His partner, however, was different. During down times what helped Doug’s partner was spending time alone with books and artwork. Too much contact with others made it harder to shake the blues. Only through sharing feedback with each other were they able to learn how best to support each other during difficult times.
Sharing responsibility for feedback in relationships
One of the problems with how most of us handle feedback in society at large and in our relationships is that we place all the responsibility for the success of it on the person giving the feedback.
The thinking is something like this: If you do a good enough job explaining and delivering your message, then the person will change.
Are you starting to see the flaw with this logic?
What type of feedback is really happening here?
The authors say that another problem with how we approach feedback is that we tend to lump several different things under that word: appreciation, coaching and evaluation.
- Appreciation is a positive, and rewarding expression of acknowledgment for your contribution
- Evaluation is like getting a grade in school. Did you make the cut or not? In relationships, we want to and need to know how we’re doing.
- Coaching oriented feedback is about growth. It addresses the question, how can I do (even) better?
Each of these is important but serves a different purpose.
If your partner tries to offer you helpful suggestions (coaching oriented feedback) and you take it as an evaluation of your success or failure in the relationship, then the conversation likely will not be helpful.
Similarly, when someone says they have a few helpful suggestions (coaching oriented feedback) and then proceeds to let you know that you’ve failed miserably (evaluation), the crossed wires can make it harder.
Defensive reactions make it harder to learn from feedback
Another area that the Harvard Law School professors’ research on feedback brought to light is that we often react to feedback defensively. Instead of trying to understand we go directly into the umpteen reasons why it’s wrong.
Consider that even if 99% of it is wrong, there is likely a small bit of truth there that can help you grow and improve. That’s easy to agree with until you’re the one receiving the feedback.
No doubt about it, receiving feedback can be very challenging!
Creating Safety to say “Tell Me More”
Instead of responding to feedback with a list of reasons why the person is wrong, imagine if you truly felt empowered to wholeheartedly respond by curiously inquiring, “I’d like to understand your thoughts better. Tell me more.”
That would be a remarkable relationship!
Take some time to consider what would need to change in how you relate with your partner and others in order to create so much safety in your relationship that you could respond like that.
What would you need to ask others for, and what would you need to do differently for this to be possible for you? What internal shifts within you could make this possible?
Asking for Feedback
Fairly often I hear from people complaining about how others are interacting with them. While circumstances vary widely, a common unexamined assumption is “I’m not the problem here.”
How are you so sure?
For example, one client told me that he could only find dates who are standoffish and uncommunicative, not open to going deeper. If this is a trend you are experiencing with multiple people, it’s worth examining your role in it. You are after all the common thread.
It can be tough to acknowledge that I have a part in creating what’s happening. And, it’s often true.
One powerful thing you can do to explore this is to ask your friends for feedback. This can be an empowering thing to do. Sure it can be scary, but they’re friends and they care about you so if you are truly willing to listen (rather than just argue with what they say), then they’ll tell you some helpful things.
Accepting others when they aren’t so great at receiving feedback
When we understand that it’s widespread issue in our society that people are not taught to receive feedback well, it becomes easier to accept when those close to us don’t receive our feedback well.
Yes, each of us still has a responsiblity to give feedback in a way that is not harsh, that is tactful and for anything complex or intense that builds slowly. And it’s also the other person’s responsibility to have some skills at receiving feedback.
If you don’t get a good reception, you can look at how you delivered the feedback and why you felt it was important to do so. If you felt it was necessary (such as to uphold a personal boundary) then when you get a negative response keep in mind that you may not be the problem.
You may have done a good job giving the feedback. Most often this offers you an opportunity to be persistent and compassionate. No one is perfect – not even friends and lovers.
Continue getting better at feedback
This is a topic you can explore through reflection, journaling and discussion with your partner. If you’re not currently in an intimate relationship, it’s worth considering how you can get better at receiving feedback in other relationships – at work, with roommates, friends, biological family and others you regularly spend time with.