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Posted by Philip on 13 May 2013, 2:53 pm in , , , ,

Negative feedback: turning it around for good

Show me someone who has never been told they got it wrong, or someone who hasn't had to break the news to someone else, and you'll show me a liar. Let's face it, we've all stuffed up and we've all been pulled up for doing so.

The question is, how was it communicated? I'd say 95% percent of the time, it was by punishing or being punished, shaming or being shamed, losing it or being bawled out.

It doesn't have to be that way. Nor is it useful. It causes ill-will, arguments, bad relationships, violence and worse.

I've been on both ends of the "fail" conversation. I've experienced it badly and, I admit, I've mucked up the experience for others.

Recently though, I've had a few people to whom I've felt it my responsibility, because of my role, to give a bit of negative feedback; and it's been a good experience for all. So I thought I'd share a few general observations about how to turn that "you done bad" conversation into "we do good".

1. Timing

I have learnt to wait, reflect and contemplate. Straight after I notice some one has done something wrong, inappropriate or just annoying, is not a good time to mention it. Usually there'll be other people around and I'll end up shaming them. My emotional reaction to what they have (or haven't) done will turn my feedback into a put-down. So I make a mental note to talk to them later and begin to think about not what I'll say, but what change I'd like to create.

2. Discussing

I've found it useful to discuss the feedback I'm wanting to offer with someone else first. I find someone who knows the person and/or situation, ask them what they think and check out that I've not over-reacted. I clarify with them the main points that need addressing. I could role play, but I find that leads me to a script-and-rehearse scenario; if I'm following a script, I end up talking at someone, not with them.

3. Preparing

Whether it's just before I give the feedback or setting up a time to meet the person to whom I wish to offer feedback, I prepare them by saying I want to offer feedback and that it may be uncomfortable for them to hear. I allow them the option to say no, unless I have a professional reason, such as being their employer. If they say no, I ask when would be a better time (or, again, I may need to insist if I have a responsibility to do so). Recently I've noticed a recurring behaviour in a social situation where I've been able to have an immediate, aside conversation; as well as emailing someone to meet a week or so after a situation occurred.

4. Being direct, factual, affirming; then listening and reflecting

By the time I get to actually giving feedback, I like to feel we are both are ready and, hopefully, comfortable that it may be difficult but won't be damaging. I am as direct and specific as possible about the issue, its impact and what I'd like to change. I let them know what I see as positive about them, or how I can see that what they said or did was not intentional or could have been triggered by another person, a past event or misunderstanding. Then, I listen to their response. I've learnt that I will invariably hear what was behind what happened.

For example, I've learnt from people that they've had past or present roles that required different expectations. I've heard they've felt stressed, anxious or embarrassed. I've come to understand that they've been trying to meet the needs of two or more parties with competing agendas.

I've then been able to reflect this back, giving them the ability to be more aware of the behaviour in future. This also offers an historical perspective of its cause, so that people don't blame themselves, but see that the behaviour can both serve and limit, depending on the situation or context.

5. Being generous

Most importantly, I give negative feedback in the spirit of generosity. My purpose is to offer a mirror of how someone is perceived in a way that they may have not seen before. My intent is to give an opportunity for someone to become better, stronger and more able to achieve their potential.

6. Being authentic

When we fail to point out someone's weaknesses, because we are afraid of what they may think of us, we cease to be authentic. Authenticity is being honest, open and vulnerable; giving negative feedback requires all three qualities.

If we are scared people will be offended, upset or angry about being guided in their human fallibility, we are ultimate failing them and being selfish. We are missing out on the opportunity to turn the negative into a force for good.