Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ruminating on Feedback

I spend a good deal of time teaching multi-weekend cooperative facilitation and leadership training around the country (I have ones going on concurrently in New England, North Carolina, and the Pacific Northwest, with a fourth about to start in Ann Arbor).

Three-quarters of each training weekend is devoted to preparing for, delivering, and debriefing what students are able to do when facilitating live meetings for the the group that's hosting the weekend. In this essay I want to drill down on what happens in the debriefings, which are doubly important. 

First, it is invaluable for trainees to get immediate reflections on the work they've just completed, while the experience is fresh in their minds and in their bodies (they learn both ways). With this in view we invariable protect the hour just after students have facilitated a two- or three-hour meeting to go over and critique what happened. First the person facilitating self-evaluates, and then the rest of class gives comments, with my co-trainer and I blending our comments with those of other students. 

Comments cover the gamut from laudatory to critical, from questioning to affirming. We emphasis being concise and not being repetitious. When students receive feedback they are allowed to set boundaries around how it is delivered, yet are encouraged to do their best to take it as it comes and to not comment or explain their choices (excepting to ask clarifying questions). Their sole job during debriefings is to take it all in and try to learn from it.

Second, we are training students both how to give and receive feedback, which is a grossly underdeveloped skill in Western society, and a foundational piece in the cooperative culture we are trying to replace it with. It's my view that the wider culture does a piss poor job of acculturating its citizenry in this kind of communication. Mostly we grow up learning how to stonewall, deflect, belittle, defend, or counterattack. Listening for useful information, sadly, is frequently the last option considered.

After observing this for some time, I've made the choice to teach this straight up. That means I'm direct, and I never say something insincerely. That is, I don't blow smoke up anyone's ass. If I give you a compliment, you've earned it. If I offer corrective comments; it's because I think something can be done better and I want you to know that. If you did something that you always do well, I'm likely to not say anything at all (why bother; you already have that down).

Further, I don't embrace the technique of feedback sandwiches (where compliments bracket criticism), in part because I've learned that most people pick up on the technique and quickly learn to discount the bun and go straight to the meat. When people struggle to use I statements ("I sensed that the group didn't respond well to your strong suggestion about where to focus the conversation."), listeners learn to translate that comment back into the original You statement ("You blew it by not letting the group tell you where they wanted to start the conversation. When you pushed them you lost their trust in your neutrality.")

To be fair, there are times when I don't say something that I might—perhaps because I cannot think how to frame it in a way that I believe the recipient can hear. And there are times when I back off because I sense the person is overloaded, or because I'm becoming reactive rather than constructive. On top of that I make mistakes. Sometimes I'm too harsh; sometimes my comments are out of proportion; sometimes I've misread what happened.

More than any other aspect of my work as a process trainer and consultant, it is in the arena of giving critical feedback that I am most likely to get into hot water. Even though I feel professionally bound to reflect what I see, people's resistance to criticism can be impenetrable, or I may fail to see the opening. On top of that there is added danger when I'm working with a group that is conflict averse (which many are), and is weak in dealing openly with tough issues. It is all too common for people who don't want to hear what I have distilled from observation and listening to blame me for the problem ("No one else has ever said that to me; you must be driving your own agenda" or "We didn't have that problem until you showed up.") I don't get paid to be timid, but that doesn't mean I'll be celebrated for being brave.

To be clear I try to be more circumspect in how I give critical feedback to groups. (It is not unusual for permission to hire me to be predicated on the perceived benefit of my laboring with one or more "problem" members, and other members are unpleasantly surprised to learn that I think their behavior is part of what's not working—it did not occur to them ahead if time that that was a possibility and now they're outraged.) 

In the context of a facilitation training, I hold back less. Students are paying to be there and have been told that feedback training is an integral component of the course. Further, I have let them know that I will purposely not treat them with kid gloves. However much they may be embarrassed or feel shamed by receiving a critical comment from the instructor, they know I care about them and will never speak with intent to inflict pain—which is not something they can count on when someone in a group they are facilitating is unhappy with their choices. (I tell trainees up front that if they need to be liked all the time, and have all their choices praised, then they should quit now.)

If you think about it, you'll realize that feedback is most valuable when it exposes a problem. If someone misses a compliment, they are most likely to simply continue to do what they did before and that's not a problem. If critical comments are withheld however (or purposefully softened or made vague in the hopes of not damaging the recipient's self esteem), it's quite likely to lead to the inappropriate or ineffective behavior being sustained. Yuck.

So where does this leave us? What's an effective pedagogical choice for teaching people to get better at giving and receiving critical feedback? I wrestle with this a lot. Here are the guidelines that I've come up with so far:

Walk Your Talk
Don't ask students to do better with feedback than you can do yourself. If you want them to be more open to feedback then you have to be able to hear it when others are unhappy with something you've done. (Note that I didn't say you have to agree with critical comments; but it behooves you to be open to that possibility, and to demonstrate that you accurately heard what was said.)

Being Direct Does Not Mean Being Mean
Communicate with clean energy. Do your best to avoid giving feedback when upset. At the very least, own your reaction.

Care about your audience. Hint: distinguish outcomes and behaviors from intent and values. All too often when people are told that they did a bad thing, they hear that they are a bad person; don't allow that mistake to prevail!

Don't Dogpile
If someone else has already given a similar critical comment, don't repeat it. Doubling down on a criticism will far more often lead to overwhelm than additional learning.

Give Choices about Setting
In the end, it should not matter that much to the giver how the feedback is delivered, so long as the recipient fully hears and understands it. To that end, give the intended recipient options:

o  Alone, with a witness or advocate, or in the whole group
o  In writing or orally
o  On the spot, or at a later date

In short, give the person a heads up that you have some feedback for them and would like to know what their preferred setting is. Not surprisingly, feedback sessions are much more likely to go well (be constructive) if the set up is mutually agreeable.

Notice that I did not say give them choices about whether or not to hear the feedback (you don't want a culture where it's acceptable to opt out of hearing feedback); only choices about how they receive it.

Tips on Giving Feedback
—Be specific about what didn't work for you.

—Talk in terms of specific actions or behaviors; resist the temptation to interpret intent.

—Name your feelings ("When you did x, I felt y, and it has z meaning for me").

—If you know, request specific behavior changes that will work better for you and see if they'll agree to try to make the adjustment(s). You may not get what you want, but you can ask. If an agreement is reached, it is often prudent to put it in writing (memories being as selective as they are).

—Discuss consequences if the recipient agrees to make changes and then fails to do so. It is completely demoralizing to slog through a difficult negotiation, feel that you ultimately made important progress on dealing with an irritating behavior, then have it unravel through weak follow through or relapsed behavior, and find yourself back where you were before and without recourse. This can tear groups up.

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