Sunday, October 16, 2011

Critiquing Poor Feedback

I got some interesting (useless) feedback (headworms) from someone today at the Yusef's 3:00 meeting. Now, part of the feedback was that I think I have the only right answer, so this post is a bit ironic because I have professional experience in giving feedback as a teacher and a trainer, but bear with me.

First, let me explain what head worms means. This is a wonderful concept I picked up from a colleague whom I won't name so I don't stain their reputation should I, know-it-all that I am, misrepresent the concept. What head worms means to me is the uncomfortable things running around in our heads that we sometimes want to put on other people. Its meaning changes with context just like the famous comedy bits on curse words demonstrate so well. Anyway, it's kind of your issues, your problems, your concerns, you discomfort that really isn't all that appropriate or useful to others.

I may have faults, perhaps lots of them, but I try to never give unsolicited feedback of this nature. I'm not talking about a discussion in which you naturally respond and critique as you go along, I'm talking about walking up to someone - today it was someone I'd never met nor, so far as I know or remember, directly communicated with - and telling them they're messing up. This is always done for your own good, of course.

The problem is feedbacking is a specialized skill. Doing it well is pretty much always uncomfortable, even if voluntary, requested and expected. For it to be useful, as opposed to dumping your head worms into someone else's head, there are some general things one must keep in mind and do.

1. You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if you don't ask permission first.

You can't just say, "Can I talk to you?" then take a big handful of head worms out of your skull, open up your target's skull, plop 'em down and close things up. That's an ambush. You know words are coming, but you've not yet agreed to be fileted and plopped on the barbie covered in lemon juice and pepper. You have to ask for permission to share your head worms. "May I offer you some feedback on (some messed up thing you did)?" is a decent way to start. If you don't ask first, it's got a good chance of devolving into a (bad situation). And if there is an emotional content, not just intellectual, all the more so. Nitroglycerin-laced words.

2. You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if you don't seek clarification before offering your feedback.

There are lots of reasons someone might have written or said something you didn't like, or that it might come off that way, but unless you know the context and intent, it is impossible for you to offer useful feedback. They may have been unclear; they may have phrased something poorly and not realized it; it might be poor word choice; they might be unaware of something and communicated something they would otherwise not have. Of course, they could mean exactly what they said and you may not like it. But if you do not explore this first, you will almost certainly end up dumping your head worms all over the place. Also, there is a high likelihood you misunderstood something, didn't know some important contextual element, etc.

So, the first thing you do is ask the person if what they intended to say squares with what they think they said or what you think they said. You will find fairly often there is a disconnect on either your end or their end. It is only after you have established that what they intended to communicate is what they actually did communicate that you can offer useful feedback. You might get lucky or be knowledgeable enough or aware enough to get it right, but the chance of there being a misunderstanding is high enough that it's better not to risk it.

For example, a critique I have gotten more than once in my life, and was so generously head worm slimed with today, was that I think I am the only one who knows the right way to (whatever.) The key here is simple: my entire life I have tended to speak in declarative sentences. I don't know why, I just do. Since I've had to think on this in the past, I have come up with a possible explanation over the years. Basically, it's pretty damned obvious when a statement can or can't be a fact.

E.g., a statement about an actual fact is either correct or incorrect and verifiable. Anything else is opinion. When you hear a declarative statement where the content is not factual, then regardless of the style or manner of speech, it's an opinion. Period. With me, because I have this habitual way of speaking, you have to check. (Yes, I have tried to change this, but no luck so far, so please check before tossing your head worms my way.)

Please give your target the benefit of the doubt and ask first.

3. You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if you don't accept their response and accept the consequences.

Giving feedback is uncomfortable in the best of circumstances. In a professional setting it is the responsibility of the feedback giver to expect negative reactions and deal with them regardless of what they are. If it gets to the level of abuse, break off rather than strike back. In my opinion, non-professional situations are the same. Unsolicited feedback that is also not granted permission is a very aggressive behavior. Expect blowback. If you get blowback, do not respond in kind. You engaged, you hold primary responsibility.

An example from today. At the end of our head worm dumping session the person stretched out their hand for me to shake. I didn't. They were offended. Now, I'm the one with worm poop all over my head, but THEY'RE offended. They were actually angry that I did not want to shake their hand after having my head filled up with their head worms. Is that really surprising? The specific problem was simple: I did not believe the person was sincere. When they stomped off and were cursing in frustration to someone else about the head worm incident, without allowing me to explain why i did not want to shake their hand, which I did, they confirmed that their intent was to dump head worms, not offer useful feedback.

Thus, You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if you become angry when they don't accept it. The feedback is not for you! It is something you offer, supposedly out of love and respect, but you get angry when it's not accepted? The recipient of your feedback is under no obligation to like your feedback, nor to accept it! There is no social contract that assumes feedback must be accepted. Not even in a professional setting does the feeback giver assume the feedback will be accepted. The feedback is for the recipient to grow with. A defensive response from the giver is an unambiguous signal they needed to get something off their chest and chose you to do it. We are all responsible for our own feelings. Your response to someone else's comments belongs to you. It is a common error in giving feedback to confuse your need to vent with the right to vent, and to confuse that with actual, useful feedback. You have no right to vent. Nobody has an obligation to let you vent at them, even if they *did* screw up and your anger is legitimate. It is still YOUR anger.

4. You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if your feedback is not specific. The litmus test is simple: does your feedback give the recipient something concrete they can make use of to make positive changes in the future? If not, you're serving up head worms. The honest thing to do if your feedback is not going to be useful is to own up to your real intent and admit you are unhappy with them and want to give them a piece of your mind. It's honest and real. You might actually get to rant *and* come to some understanding. Likely not, but sincerity and honesty are often the key to getting through a tense situation. But dumping head worms is an inherently dishonest act. It may be driven subconsciously, but it's your responsibility to know yourself and manage your actions and emotions. Particularly when the interaction is initiated by you and is unsolicited and unannounced.

Today I was told my "tone" was the problem and that I think I know the only right way to do such and such. When I asked why, the person could not tell me. If that was the case, they had no business approaching me. How do you get tone from written text? The only way to explore that is in the text. It's meaningless information for the recipient. Consider: the writer wrote it. If they'd thought their tone was a problem they would have written differently unless their intent was to offend - in which case the tone was intentional and your feedback even more meaningless. To be useful, this person needed to be able to identify passages or words, almost certainly a fair amount of it in order to determine tone, that gave this person that impression. If we could look at the text, I might have discovered a good editing session might have fixed the problem, but an amorphous pronouncement my tone is a problem is absolutely useless.

By the way, your friends or whatever agreeing with you is not proof of accuracy. They are in the same boat you are with the same limited information to work with.

5. You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if you assume you are right. We covered this tangentially in the collective comments above, but it's not just about not checking, it's coming in with a false belief you already know this person's mind, heart, and intent, have all the relevant information, and the arrogant belief you know all there is to know about whatever it was that bothered you. You can't possibly be certain of that. That is why you use checking first. And assuming you know intent solely from text is mind-boggling. Assuming you are correct assumes you have equal or superior knowledge to the object of your "affection" and are aware of all facets of the situation.

The only appropriate stance is to assume you might be wrong in part or in whole. That is partly why you check early in the process. In a case like today where I was accused of thinking I had all the correct answers it crosses over into hypocrisy, or at least irony.

I believe absolutely in the power of and need for feedback, but I have zero interest in being verbally and emotionally assaulted, particularly in public. None of us do. That is why feedback must be carefully given.

6. You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if you assume your sincerity is clear to your target. Don't ask them to trust you. You are assaulting them with unpleasantness. Just because you say you are speaking out of love and respect does not make it so. If you lose control and react angrily to being rebuffed because you did not sufficiently impress your target with your sincerity, you have just proven them right.

I know it's a popular and common thing these days to claim to speak from love and respect just before slamming a two-by-four upside someone's head, but our words and actions must line up. When you are coming at someone with good intent, honesty (inclusive of not being self-deceiving) and sincerity it is usually easy to tell. When it is claimed but not true, the delivery is dry, emotionless, the sadness and concern is not in the eyes, the voice doesn't soften and deepen and the speech doesn't slow. Emotion-laden speech is not like expository speech and the lack of emotive body language will out you resulting in an unproductive and likely very contentious discussion.

Nobody should subject themselves to insincere feedback. It's poison, pure and simple. For both people. Rewarding that is a mistake.

Please do not assume I am claiming to never have given poor feedback. Don't assume I am claiming the feedback I received from this person today did not have some valid points. (I have no way of knowing since the feedback was so vague and the conversation was truncated.) For your edification, my experience in this area consists of three years of counseling experience and hundreds of hours of feedback to teachers doing practice/demonstration lessons. I do not say this as an appeal to authority, but so you know my knowledge is experiential and not esoteric. Had the person challenged me to a sword fight, I'd have no valid critique.

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