Communicating difficult messages is not easy which is why it often goes poorly or not at all. Read on to learn why that is and how to fix it. There's also a therapy video that goes over the details that can be found on the website www.meaningtolive.com or on social media @jedsaidtherapy - here we go!
Humans want to feel secure which is where our limbic system comes in. The amygdala (in the limbic system part of the brain) scans for threats – always scanning to identify anything that might risk feeling secure. Receiving information that doesn’t align with what we already know threatens our emotional state which is why it’s so difficult for people to receive feedback when it’s not done properly.
Often, people will mask “helpful critique” or “feedback” with what’s actually criticism. A criticism is when a human expresses their disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes (see dictionary). Feedback is more about giving information about someone’s performance which is used as a basis for improvement.
A colleague (and hopefully friend at some future point if he ever goes mountain biking with me), Dave Durocher of The Other Side Academy says it best, “feedback is your best friend.” Dave runs a long-term behavioral program that focuses on giving people an opportunity to change their lives and it all starts with being able to accept feedback.
Humans often receive initial feedback in 1 of 3 ways. Fight, fight or freeze comes into play here as we may have a reaction to be defensive (fight) or, we retreat (flight) or we shut down (freeze). When this happens, the person giving the feedback will have their own emotional reaction as they regulate their own emotional responses to being in an uncomfortable communication. This all makes the perfect storm for the avoidance behavior which is why you’re here – to learn how to do hard things because doing hard things now makes life easier later.
There’s a difference between feedback and criticism. A saying I have at home is, “are you building them up or tearing them down.” If the goal is to provoke someone, you will want to stick to criticism. If you’re wanting to help someone to recognize how they could do something in a more effective manner, feedback is your friend. Criticism deflates while feedback inspires.
First things first. Remember, humans have that whole amygdala scanning for threats so before any feedback is given, it’s best to prepare the other human involved. This allows the brain to turn down the threat detector as it prepares to discover something that may be uncomfortable. In therapy, I often use the phrase, “are you open to feedback on this?” They can say “no thanks” or they can say, “yes”. The question is the first step (called the micro-yes) and gives the other person a choice in the communication which automatically helps them feel safer. Criticism focuses on what we don’t want while feedback focuses on what we do want.
Second, feedback needs to be specific. Often, people criticizing focus on a perceived weakness and use “blur words” or subjective material that have a generalizing sweep effect. Examples of blur words would be, “you’re being defensive” or “people don’t like you”. See how these non-specific statements could unsettle the brain? To help with this, skilled feedback givers use specific and detailed examples of what hasn’t been done well and then there’s an emphasis on overall strengths and what could be done more effectively next time. Criticism focuses on the past while feedback places focus on the future.
The third aspect to giving feedback is explaining how the behavior specifically impacted you. This is showing some vulnerability on the part of the feedback giver and allows for the person that’s already accepted hearing the feedback, the chance to see how their behaviors have had a negative impact on the feedback giver. It would sound something like, “when you didn’t answer the question directly, it looked like you were evading taking responsibility”. Or, “You didn’t read the email thoroughly and because of that, they didn’t have what they needed for their presentation.” Our brains HATE unknowns and giving specifics helps people to stay calm while hearing sincere feedback. In addition, this is a good place to identify what the person does well and that you believe in their abilities which is why you’re working with them in the first place. Criticism focuses on weakness while feedback builds on strengths.
The fourth and final aspect of giving healthy feedback ends…with a question. After the feedback has been given, ask them what they think about it. Remember to ask and open ended question using words like “how” or “what”. The question could be as simple as “what do you think about that?” Ending the communication with a question helps the person (who’s likely feeling a lot of uncomfortable emotions) to re-align with the person giving the feedback. It then becomes a joint effort vs. a ‘you have no say in the matter’ communication. Even more than that, it helps them to realize they’re not “in trouble” and the person giving the feedback respects and values them enough to want their opinion and THEIR feedback. Criticism points to them being the problem while feedback places importance on how they can do better, together.
Feedback is your best friend.
What did you think of this article? After writing it, I wonder if healthy feedback is even possible online. Can the 4 steps even be accomplished via social media communication?
If you liked it, you’ll like the Jed Said Video that goes over the 4 steps to resolving conflict found on the website www.meaningtolive.com or on social media @jedsaidtherapy
Till next time, awareness up.
Jed Thorpe, CMHC