My job as a psychologist is to have hard conversations. I'm in the business of talking about uncomfortable truths. As a clinician, I tell patients the things that other people in their life can't or won't say. I deliver feedback intended to deepen self-understanding.
Feedback is designed to make individuals and organizations better, but getting it right can be hard.
Giving Effective Feedback
Humans are biased and hurt by their blindspots. You are in a position to give a gift when you can expand an individual's self-view.
Expect negative cycles to repeat if you aren't interrupting them with feedback. In the short term, it's easier to avoid hard conversations. Usually, this strategy is not a long-term solution, and it comes at a high cost as uninterrupted problems compound. Withholding feedback hampers organizations and holds back people who aren't reaching their full potential.
Effective feedback is designed to drive improvement and should be a catalyst for change. Saying nice things to someone is great, but compliments alone don't provide a complete picture of performance. Identify areas of opportunity and spell them out clearly.
When you deliver feedback, carefully calibrate what, how, and when. Determine your objectives for the conversation. Consider how you can package your message so the person on the receiving end will be more likely to take in it and act on it. Use empathic perspective-taking and consider what it will be like to be on the receiving end.
In your discussion. . .
Talk about what's working and address what's not.
Instead of criticizing, be curious together about what is going on.
Be direct, not sharp.
Remember, honest is kind.
Delivering feedback requires courage. It's hard to be the messenger of honest news. When you engage in hard conversations, you can't be scared of the recipient's reaction. Sometimes people shy away from speaking candor because they don't want to "hurt feelings." Often, the real story is that they want to avoid sitting with someone else's emotions. When you tell an individual something they don't want to hear, they might respond defensively. Humans hate internal dissonance. An initial response to feedback may be anger or frustration. These feelings may be directed at you, but they needn’t be yours to own. It's usually easier for someone to be upset with the messenger than it is to look inward and be frustrated with themselves. Build friction into your expectations. When you anticipate that some resistance will likely be part of the initial feedback process, you can better prepare for it.
Feedback doesn't stop with one conversation. What you say is the starting point. Tracking how someone metabolizes what you've shared and monitoring what they do with your perspective is the real test.
Getting Feedback & Gracefully Taking it In
Sometimes people ask for feedback when they want validation. Be clear about what you are requesting when someone is willing to take valuable time to share their perspective. If encouragement is what you want, it's okay to let someone know you need some reassurance that you're on the right track.
Receiving feedback is hard. We crave praise. We want to know people like us. It's nice to hear that others are pleased with what we do. It's crucial to remember that positive things can be true and live alongside of areas where we have room to improve. It's not either/or. The people who care about us the most often have deep confidence in our abilities and are willing to push us to be the best version of ourselves. As a clinician, I accept clients as they are while refusing to settle for the life they currently have.
If you are serious about obtaining a perspective that will help you improve, buckle up. The kind of feedback that makes us better is often internally disruptive. I can recall many experiences in my own life and career where I've been called to task on situations where there was a significant divide between reality and aspiration. Looking back, the things that have helped me the most and stuck with me for years were often the conversations that, in the moment, were the most difficult to hear.
Learn to accept feedback with grace. Be open and nondefensive. When someone presents us with a perspective we don't like, often our first instinct is to disagree. If someone takes time to give you feedback, let is soak in. Avoid the instinct to immediately tell someone the reasons you think they're wrong. Instead, step back. Imagine the person's intent in sharing with you what they have said. If you vehemently disagree with what you've heard, push yourself to wonder whether there might be at least some truth in this new perspective. What if it is true? Next, ask: "Have I heard something similar before?” Developing self-awareness about some patterns that don't serve us is crucial for becoming "unstuck." Finally, consider, "How can I use any parts of what I've heard to be a better version of myself in the future?"
Sometimes what we want to hear isn't what we need to hear. If we dare to listen, we can live transformed.
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If you’re interested in strategies for managing stress, sharpening your interpersonal skills, and increasing self-awareness, don’t miss Finding Joy: