Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Feedback on Giving Feedback

Last weekend I got valuable information from friendsagainabout how I don't always pay enough attention to my audience when offering reflections about what they're doing. It's humbling to reflect on how many times I've had the chance to digest this lesson over the years, and still haven't gotten the job done.

There's a certain irony here in that I'm getting feedback about how effective my communication is about how effective I think others are in their choice about how to communicate their thinking. Talk about chasing one's tail (not to mention the pot calling the kettle black)…

Here's how it played out. Back in August I was the overnight guest of two married friends and I inquired about what the man had been up to lately. He's an interesting guy and he had an interesting answer. He's concerned about sustainability and energy consumption, and has been focusing in particular on how this relates to residential housing—decisions about which tend to have longer lasting consequences than most energy choices, such as diet and transportation.

I was stimulated by the conversation to think about how to apply his conclusions to Sandhill, and got excited about the idea of embracing the concept of a passive home (one so carefully constructed that the heat from occupants and appliances is sufficient to meet space heating needs, obviating the need for a furnace or wood stove) to construct my community's next building, perhaps as early as 2011. This technology has the potential of reducing the energy usage in homes by 90% and could make a real contribution in efforts to build a world that works sustainably.

At the same time, the man was troubled by what he felt were misleading claims by architects and builders relying on LEED certification to reduce energy consumption in the construction and use of buildings. He was concerned that the savings claims were specious and giving the public a false sense of progress.

Without making an assessment of about whether the facts were accurate (I'm in over my head in that regard) it caught my attention that he was making the choice to spend a significant fraction of his energy on challenging LEED claims, rather than on promoting his alternate solution. This strategic choice was what I was trying to give him feedback about (not about the importance of the topic or the soundness of his conclusions), but the conversation didn't go well. Worse, I persisted in trying to give my perspective (mainly by saying it
repeatedly, with increasingly greater animation). Not surprisingly, this was not an effective tactic. (Why does anyone think that saying the same thing louder and/or faster is ever an effective choice in the face of resistance or misunderstanding?)

Worse, I came away from the August exchange thinking that at least things had ended on an up-note, because I had concluded our conversation by focusing on how impressed I was with his ideas about passive homes. Last week, when I spoke with the woman, I found out that the man felt I'd "chewed him out" in August. Yikes! That hadn't been my experience at all. The woman then proceeded to recapitulate the man's position about the LEED problem, working from the understanding that I hadn't heard what her partner had said two months ago. This was depressing. Apparently I hadn't been clear with either of them. When you take into account that I teach communication and how to constructively navigate moments when there's a significant difference in viewpoints, this bordered on embarrassing. How did I misread what was going on so badly?

As best as I can reconstruct it, I was attached to having the man hear my thoughts about why I thought it was a better strategy to emphasize positive alternatives rather than dwelling on what he didn't like about others' suggestions. For his part, the man had a considerable investment in his analysis and probably felt threatened by my critique. In retrospect, I realize that I had assumed he'd be interested in my reflections, and hadn't bothered to check that out before launching into my analysis (Mistake #1).

That error was compounded by my insistence on restating my "insight" when he didn't seem to get it. Never mind whether I was right or not about what he understood: I had ample evidence that he wasn't finding utility in what I was offering, and I kept hammering away anyway (Mistake #2).

Topping it all off (third time's the charm), I didn't bother to check out how the man felt afterward. Since I was doing OK, I assumed he was also. (Apparently, I was determined to make a hash of the exchange.) That was Mistake #3, the dimensions of which only got revealed to me last week when I got reports from two different sources about how hard the August conversation had landed for the man.

As hard as it was to hear all that, it was important that I ultimately got it, and thus have a chance to do it differently in the future. Stephen Covey encapsulates this lesson in the following nugget: Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.

Maybe someday I'll actually live that way.

1 comment:

Eris said...

One of the things I appreciate about you, Laird, is your ability to receive and process this kind of feedback about yourself -- I know it ain't easy, spending a fair amount of time with my own foot in my mouth -- and your willingness to then share it so publicly! Thank you!