Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Dynamics of Doorknob Feedback

Two weeks ago, Ma'ikwe and I had a student reach the flash point at the end of the first weekend (of eight) of our facilitation training. After meeting each other for the first time Thursday evening—and apparently getting off to a hopeful start—everything unraveled for this woman over the course of the next 70 hours, to the point that she boiled over in a rant in the final hour Sunday afternoon. It was the first expression that Ma'ikwe and I had of her distress with the training, and by then it was essentially too late to do anything about it other than to listen. Essentially, she was giving us a devastating analysis with one hand on the doorknob, about to exit our lives. Yuck!

While it never feels good when someone is in pain—and it's extra hard when they're lashing out in the process—it was nonetheless important to know her upset and to try to glean what we could about where things had gone wrong. (While it's an valuable part of our training that the students get to witness how the trainers handle raw feedback, that doesn't mean we look forward to the experience.)

There were a number of factors that contributed to what happened:
—This woman had had no prior experience with intentional community and had trouble understanding the culture and norms of the host. We need to pay much more attention to orienting people who are unfamiliar with intentional community (which is almost always where the training weekends take place), so that the environment itself is more accessible (less mysterious) and not overwhelming. There's plenty of new stuff in the training and we don't need to compound the challenge of absorbing what's happening by making the students function in a foreign world without translation.

—The trainers (Ma'ikwe and I) need to be more diligent about explaining what we're doing at each step. That is, we need to lay out when we're modeling a behavior, when we're trying to make a teaching point, when we want the students to ask questions, when there are options about how we'll focus our time, when we want the students to take initiative, etc. While all of this gets easier as the class builds its own culture and rhythm, we are starting with a blank slate and need to road map very clearly to avoid confusion. Especially during Weekend I.

—The trainers need to explicitly protect space for students to approach them if they're having reactions to what's going on, or reactions to the trainers (alas, in the case that precipitated this essay, both were occurring). If the student isn't assured that this is available, things can slide downhill quite quickly. Poignantly, Ma'ikwe and I had explicitly checked with this struggling woman
Saturday afternoon and offered her time to meet with us that evening. She turned us down, thinking we were only offering to discuss preparation for a facilitation assignment she had the next day; she didn't understand that our offer could also be used to discuss how she was struggling. Having interpreted our offer as inappropriate to her needs, it became another piece of evidence of our obliviousness, rather than a ray of hope. (I'm telling you, the fall from grace can be hard and swift.)

The point here is not to assign blame for what went wrong; it's to better grok how easily misunderstandings can cause minor rifts (Luke, there's a disturbance in the Force) to erode into unbridgeable chasms. As the trainers, it is ultimately our responsibility to make sure the students know that feedback offer is there.

In this particular incident, the woman chose to express her upset and then exit. She'd had a very hard weekend, didn't feel taken care of, lost any confidence she had in the competency of the trainers, and didn't want to continue. Things had gotten bad enough that by the time she spoke up, she was burning the bridges. After stating her piece, she made it clear she wasn't available for working on the issues she raised; she was only interested in hearing how her feedback landed. Honoring her request, several people reflected back what we'd heard,
starting with Ma'ikwe and me. She reported having felt heard and then left.

Later that evening, she accepted an invitation to meet one-on-two with Ma'ikwe and me (in the presence of a neutral third party), where she gave us additional criticisms. Though these were not delivered in anger, her evening comments were more highly negative assessments and she cut short our attempts to respond. That is, she was still not interested in working the issues; she just wanted a second opportunity to tell us more fully of our failings.

I tell this story because this is as unsatisfying as it gets. The Sunday conversations with this woman were all one way, and by the time she spoke it was too late to attempt to repair the damage. And yet, this woman had every right to her feelings and to her choice to exit. As unpleasant as it was to sit through, and as disrespected and misunderstood as I felt about what was said (and how it was delivered), it does me no good whatsoever to attempt to protect myself from hearing it.

The distinction I'm making here is that I can be sad and frustrated that anyone relates to me this way, and yet it's absolutely in my interest to hear it if that's what's true for them. I need to keep the feedback channels to me as clear as possible in order to have accurate information about how I'm perceived. And that expressly means being as available as I can for raw feedback. While no fun, prohibiting it is just not smart. If I insist that feedback only be delivered in a pretty package ("I" statements only, please) then I am choking the feedback channels and run the risk of seriously distorting or insulating myself from valuable information.

To be sure, I'm not obliged to agree with the feedback—it's a complex matter deciding what weight to give criticism and whether you want to consider behavior changes in light of what you hear—I'm only making the point that it's never in your best interest to place barriers in the way of hearing it.

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