Everything is feedback

By John-Paul Flintoff

I was running a workshop on “communication at work”. I’d arrived with a plan, but (as usual) invited the group of 30 or so people before me to help design the session by telling me what they wanted from it. I would change my plan entirely, if they wished.

But this group (with exceptions) chose to remain passive.

I’ve become increasingly curious about the idea of “feedback”. Most people in this workshop, I discovered, think of feedback as a) necessarily and always toxic, or b) management bollocks.

Well I’m no fan of management bollocks, and it’s true that there are many examples of awful feedback out there in the world – especially online. But without clear feedback, everybody drifts. We put things out there, and have no idea whether the things we’re putting out are wanted.

And that doesn’t apply only to work but to our everyday interactions outside as well. Because everything is feedback. When people don’t return calls, that’s feedback. But it’s vague: in the absence of specifics, we have to make up a reason ourselves. Are they a) very busy, but looking forward to calling us soon, or b) do they suddenly hate us? What did we do wrong?

What did it mean to face all those blank expressions in my workshop? It could be a) that I failed to create a sufficiently safe space for people to speak out, or b) they were tired, or c) didn’t speak English or d) needed desperately to go to the loo or e), f), g, h, i,j,k,lmnopqrstuvwxyz.

How to guess?

So, about half-way through the session, I announced that I was finding it very hard to know what to do, because I had little clue what the people in front of me wanted. (In my head, I’d started to make up an idea that these were individuals whose biggest difficulty in communication at work, and possibly elsewhere, was in speaking up for themselves. But I kept that thought, perhaps anyway mistaken, to myself.)

I said: I would appreciate your help.

I sensed a strong resistance – perhaps because of the deep-seated beliefs some individuals had about feedback being toxic. One woman told me she always ignores “the positive stuff that is delivered first and last in a shit-sandwich” because she “knows” that only the negative bit in the middle is intended sincerely. (Shit sandwich! What a horrible idea! Who taught people to give feedback like that?)

I pointed out that in this instance I was ASKING them for feedback, so they had full permission.

I WANT to know what you think I’ve done well, I said, AND what you would like me to have done more, or differently. If you only say “nice” things you might make me glow warmly inside but you won’t help me to get better at running workshops.

I had no idea, beforehand, that to stand in front of a group and ask for feedback would feel like baring my chest so that somebody could plunge a knife in – nor that, as well as making me feel vulnerable, it would make me feel surprisingly strong.

Eventually, a woman at the end of the front row put up her hand and said, “I’m finding this a bit unstructured.”

Thank goodness!, I thought, while also feeling a brief pang as the invited knife plunged in.

Out loud, I said, Thank you, because that gives me a clue how to change my approach. And I immediately set about imposing structure retrospectively, by slowly going over what we had already covered. (It was remarkable how well this imposed structure.)

Then I pointed out that this woman’s intervention, whether or not we think of it as “feedback”, was a lot more helpful – because explicit, specific, and honest – than the blank looks I’d received beforehand.

Then another woman, perhaps emboldened by the first’s example, put her hand up to ask a question. How could she could get people at work to give her feedback directly, instead of going behind her back to her boss?

“Have you asked?” She hadn’t.

Missing feedback alert!

Both women had provided excellent examples of how our grumbles and complaints contain hidden requests. And we always have a choice: to find and state the request cleanly, or to muffle it by complaining unspecifically, or indeed to do and say nothing.

If we choose the third option, perhaps we should stop complaining, and cheerfully embrace the situation we find ourselves in. It might make us more fun to be around.

If this topic interests you, please leave a comment below about the best/worst ways you’ve given and received feedback. If you wish, you could also tell me what you liked about this post, and what you might have liked more of. As you are doing this, keep an eye on yourself: notice how willing you are to provide the “nice” or the “constructive” bit of feedback. Challenge yourself to try the one you feel less comfortable with.

Postscript. My friend and colleague Rob Poynton has written an excellent blog post in response to this. You can read it here

Posted: November 26, 2014