Friday, November 22, 2013

Emotional Diabetes

Groups are often sloppy when it comes to establishing norms around members giving critical feedback to one another. In fact, as a process consultant who has worked with perhaps 100 cooperative groups over the last 25 years, I've rarely encountered a group that has an explicit understanding about the responsibility of every group member to provide to every other group member a channel for hearing feedback about their behavior as a group member—and it's a huge problem.

When feedback channels get clogged, virtual sewage piles up, resulting in anaerobic dynamics. This is the ideal medium in which gossip bacteria multiply, leading to gaseous grumblings behind people's backs, the exhalation of which tends to foul the air. Peuw! 

OK, let me frame this a bit tighter. First of all, not every reaction (thank god) needs to be processed through feedback. Often enough, the person with the reaction can let it go. Maybe they understand that their reactivity is more about them and has little or nothing to do with the other person. Maybe they're able to see that the stakes are low enough and their relationship with the other person is strong enough that they can accept the triggering dynamic as a trivial matter and move on. In any event, every fender bender does not require a police report.

Also note that I'm not talking about all behavior being subject to review—I'm only talking about behavior in the context of group functions. (Thus, you're probably not obligated to listen to someone's upset about how often you wear purple, or how distressed they are that you've named your ill-tempered rescue dog Hermione—which happens to be the same name as your favorite aunt. But you are, I think, on the hook for hearing their irritation about not having filled the tank of the group-owned pickup when you used it right before they did and they ran out of gas on the way to the recycling center.)

Further, I'm not suggesting that people need to be available to receive critical feedback on demand. There needs to be options (for instance, now or later; morning, afternoon, or evening; alone or with third party support; perhaps they'd like to see it in writing before discussing it). The prime directive here is what's most likely to land constructively (rather than destructively).

For many people, it's painful receiving critical feedback and they'd prefer to put it off until some in the next decade (if they could get away with it). Understandably, people tend to shy away from pain. But that's a bad idea.

Think about the analog with physical pain. If you step on a nail it's a damn good thing that you feel pain—which informs you that something is wrong with your foot. It's not about being happy that you're in pain; it's about being happy that you know you have a nail in your foot. Pain is an important—even essential— biofeedback loop. If you inadvertently put your hand in a flame, you burn your fingers, your hand hurts, and you pull your hand out of the fire. Whew.

If you're a diabetic, you may have nerve damage in your extremities, which could result in your stepping on a nail and not feeling anything (or fail to realize that your hand is burning). That's dangerous. Pain alerts you to do something about it. Despite how easily everyone can follow that physical example, it's amazing how many act as if they have emotional diabetes when doing something that's painful to others. 

Cutting yourself off from their pain means the feedback channel is broken. It's important information to you that your words or actions have landed awkwardly and it's a poor bargain to impede or block that flow of information. Mind you, I'm not saying you're obliged to agree that you've done anything wrong or that you must change what you do, but if you interrupt the information reaching you then you don't have the chance to consider it. You may not know that your chocies are painful to others unless they tell you. Metaphorically, you won't know to pull your hand out of the fire or the nail out of your foot (or perhaps more aptly, to pull your foot out of your mouth).

Keep in mind that I'm not saying this is easy. Especially if the delivery of the feedback comes with a charge and you don't feel there's substance to the complaint. It's a double whammy if you feel unjustly accused and dumped on into the bargain—requiring near-saintly equanimity to respond with grace and empathy instead of with defensiveness or outrage. 

But isn't it better to cultivate grace than diabetes?

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