Fiendish Feedback: The Art of Compassionate Criticism

I enjoy reading the responses to my articles. Responses to the most recent one of Feedback: The Single Most Important Skill, focused on the complexity of giving and receiving feedback. I want to now add a few comments to those responses. Here are some challenges I have named related to using feedback.

A. A Fear of causing pain or disregard for causing pain
“D” says, “someone may have done a very bad job and you could be furious with him or her, or you may be a frank person, but this does not entitle you to shout at the person or put him down. You should try to put across the message in an assertive yet respectful manner.” Yes. Of course, if you want your feedback to have a good effect, you need to calm yourself down first. Not doing so contributes to a dangerously escalating situation. Feedback is another opportunity to link power and heart, as D puts it, link assertive with respectful.

People also worry about hurting others when offering authentic, yet critical and difficult to hear feedback. Over cautiousness also contributes to escalating conflict and disempowered relationships because your colleague never gets to hear useful feedback. It’s important to be in the other person’s moccasins, when giving feedback. Empathy and sensitivity, compassion and connection, and a level of truthfulness that people can hear and gratefully use, is important.

B. Vulnerability
Asking for feedback is courageous but can feel vulnerable. Receiving feedback can result in dysfunctional, automatic responses that include:

  • taking feedback as the whole truth
  • withdrawing and de-resourcing in shame
  • deflecting
  • dismissing or denying
  • taking refuge in confusion

Pro-actively asking for feedback is a powerful way to choose when you need another’s perspective.

C. Feedback Loop
Jade wrote, “a person giving feedback may think it is not appropriate to do so because it may affect his relationship with the recipient”. Jade is talking about the impact of the power differential. It can be risky for those in a down power role to give negative feedback to a superior, because they are at risk of losing their job, getting demoted, or other repercussions. It takes particular skill to offer feedback to superiors in a way that they can hear. One of the best methods is to link a complaint with a specific and doable request for change. Then your up power person is less likely to hear your feedback as yet another complaint or way that they aren’t perfect, but as a situation that you wish to collaborate in improving.

When you are (and we all are at some times) in positions of authority, it is so important to remember how risky it may feel to those down power to you to give you feedback. Try to make it clear that you really want constructive feedback. Demonstrate to them your appreciation and use of their feedback. If you don’t demonstrate being open to all kinds of feedback, you risk getting out of the normal feedback loop and get either no feedback or only positive or skewed feedback. Being out of the feedback loop significantly impairs your ability to be a good leader. Students, clients, employees, generally have an investment in being liked, valued, and treated well by those in a power differential role.

D. Character feedback and positive feedback
Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between feedback that is valuable and that which criticizes your character or style. Your character or style may not be possible or desirable to change. For example, “You just don’t have charisma,” or “You are unkind.” Better would be feedback like “Could you experiment with using your voice with a little more energy or conviction, or “Could you try including more pauses or spaciousness in your talks.” or “Could you try being more personal and making direct verbal connections.” It is often more important to acknowledge the feedback and address the response to you as a relationship dynamic to understand and work with, than to take the feedback word for word as TRUTH.

Story: Gail’s client was critical about the slow pacing of sessions and frequently wanted Gail to just jump in and direct. She gave this process feedback to Gail. When Gail responded by moving to a faster pace, Gail’s client was surprised to discover that the faster pace frightened her and that she actually needed to go very slowly in order to feel safe enough. In this case, process feedback moved into therapeutic character work. Working with the dynamic of her habitual impatience was very productive.

E. Too much caution
We are blessed with an innate impulse to learn and grow. We long to know how we impact others. When not feeling ashamed or embarrassed about not being perfect, we can be excited and empowered by feedback that enables us to change something that was causing limitations or unnecessary suffering. Putting too much reliance on a “formula” for feedback, we can become stilted or flat. Take courage in your authenticity.

Eliza adds, “the thing we all have to remember about feedback is that it is not always going to be what you necessarily want to hear, and for it to do any good you have to be willing to take what others tell you.  If you value those opinions then you have to accept them as the truth and work on improving based on those critiques.”  A word of caution from me here:  feedback always has aspects of Truth and it is wisest not to everything as truth and not to take nothing as truth.  As a giver of feedback, refining your sensitivity and skill, will help you discern how much of your feedback to give and what to let go of for the health of the relationship.

F. Further insights
Amina Knowlan, a group leadership trainer, offers some further insights:

Feedback is not a demand for change. It may be followed by a request for change, but the feedback itself is just data. Conflict, in my experience, is often a hyper-charged backlog of undelivered feedback. By the time we deliver the feedback, there is such a build-up of dissatisfaction that it often comes with an intention and tone that sounds like a demand for change or even a threat.

If I am giving you feedback about the impact of your behavior on me, I am not blaming you, or making you responsible for that impact. I am offering data about your impact on me as a way of opening the communication between us and improving our relationship. Feedback might be thought of as a way of “lubricating” the channels of communication between us.  If, as Desmond Tutu says, ‘We can only go forward together,’ then feedback becomes a way of lending each other a hand. If we really grasped this concept that so fundamentally expresses the assumption of interconnectedness, then how could we not want to receive feedback about our impact?  Why would we spend so much time defending our intentions rather than just staying curious about our impact?
-Amina Knowlan, Matrix Leadership, personal conversation

© Copyright 2011 by Cedar Barstow. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jane

    Jane

    May 6th, 2011 at 2:52 PM

    I definitely feel vulnerable when I ask for feedback on a project. I want to know what others are thinking but I guess deep down inside I only want to know if they like what I have done. I do prefer that if they do not like the job than I would rather not know it.

  • Johnna

    Johnna

    May 7th, 2011 at 2:07 PM

    Too many people SAY that they want feedback from others but I think that all of us have probably had experiences enough as an adult that proves that in most cases this is not true. If it is not something that they really want to hear then they will get all offended and put out. If you don’t really want the feedback and to know what others are thinking that maybe you should not ask for it at all.

  • stacy

    stacy

    May 8th, 2011 at 7:02 PM

    feedback is a very important aspect for both the giver and the recipient. it is a chance for the giver to speak out on his real feel of whatever the other person has put forth and it is the reaction for the presentation put forth by the recipient.so it is important for both the people.

    but one important thing,one thing most people forget,is that the over should be polite and the recipient should give a feedback only the right kind of attention-neither too little nor too much!

  • CODY JOHAN

    CODY JOHAN

    May 9th, 2011 at 6:15 AM

    Funny thing is that people often ask for an feedback and end up not liking it,unless it matches up to how good they think their job was. And trust me, a person’s self-assesment is always prejudicial. And it is very hard for another person to match that!

  • Cedar Barstow

    Cedar Barstow

    July 3rd, 2011 at 11:21 PM

    Ahhhhhh. Feedback is an art, isn’t it? Jane, I appreciate your honesty! I think most people secretly want just good feedback, but I know that if I feel like I can ask for just good feedback and that request will be honored, I then have the freedom to get curious about what feedback they could give that would contribute to my willing growth. Joanna, you’re right. Most people don’t know they can empower themselves around feedback and say directly when, what kind, and how they want feedback. For the feedback giver, this is usually a relief because it is often challenging to give feedback as well as receive it. Yes, sensitivity in the process is really important, Stacy. Cody, this weekend I was teaching and I could feel it didn’t go very well. My students kept telling me it was great, but this was confusing because I knew it wasn’t good. Finally, when the students felt comfortable enough, they were able to agree that it didn’t go well and offer me suggestions. The next two days were a big improvement, because, after the honesty, we were able to collaborate together. Phew. So even though it was painful to hear, it was a huge relief and opened the door to things getting better. Cedar

  • Stephan

    Stephan

    October 6th, 2016 at 9:22 AM

    Hi cedar,
    The link you provide at the top of the article goes to your GoodTherapy profile page and not to the referenced article. I can’t seem to find the previous article you mention called “Feedback: the single most important skill”. Are you able to share the link here? Thanks.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    October 6th, 2016 at 10:28 AM

    Sorry, Stephan, this article has been removed from GoodTherapy.org for the time being.

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