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Feedback – why it's complex

Updated: May 4, 2020

Some models are too simplistic

Over the years we’ve worked with several different feedback models, and never felt entirely comfortable with them. Why? They often try to reduce a complex conversation to something too simplistic.

Some assume the person giving feedback is always right: may I give you the gift of my correctness? Others allow the person receiving feedback to express the following:

  1. Play Victim: “Yes, that’s true, but it’s not my fault.”

  2. Take Pride: “Yes, that’s true, but it’s a good thing.”

  3. Minimise: “It’s really not such a big deal.”

  4. Deny: “I don’t do that!”

  5. Avoid: “I don’t need this job!”

  6. Blame: “The problem is the people around me. I hire badly.”

  7. Counter: “There are lots of examples of me acting differently.”

  8. Attack: “I may have done this (awful thing), but you did this (other awful thing).”

  9. Negate: “You don’t really know anything about X.”

  10. Deflect: “That’s not the real issue.”

  11. Invalidate: “I’ve asked others and nobody agrees with the feedback.”

  12. Joke: “I never knew I was such a jerk.”

  13. Exaggerate: “This is terrible, I’m really awful.”

In other words, the person receiving feedback is allowing their ego to get in the way.

So, what works? Well, we’re not offering a formula, instead some principles.

Of course people often react negatively

Our brains are programmed to react more to negative, rather than positive feedback. The neuroscientists tell us separate brain circuits exist to handle negative information and events; they’re more sensitive than our circuits that handle the positive. Electrical activity in our brains spike more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive ones.

Our hypersensitivity to criticism may also lead us to see it where none exists: our brains seem to be wired to turn neutral comments into either good or bad—usually bad. So, we simplify the world by making it bipolar: we’re either right or wrong; good or bad; up to the job or hopeless.

At the heart of criticism is our fear of exclusion, or loss of connection. This, in turn, is tied to fear for our physical survival.

What hurts most in negative feedback, isn’t the message content so much as the threat of exclusion, abandonment, and ostracism that accompanies it: heavy stuff.

Deal with loss of connection first: show you care

A feedback conversation is like any other: a dialogue between two people. But often the power relationship is in favour of the giver. So, start the feedback conversation by emphasising inclusion and belonging. Show you care.

Your story and questions

You can start with your story of how you see things (and emphasise it’s just that) and/or ask questions to understand their story first. And show you care about them.

Ask for permission to give your feedback. (I’ve never had anyone say no to a permission question of any sort.) How about:

  1. May I let you know what I’m thinking?

  2. May I put something on the table that I want to discuss?

  3. May I speak openly and candidly?

Then bring in radical candour. Its basic approach is: first show you care, then say what you need to say. (That all important show you care piece comes first.)

Don’t beat around the bush – get to the point. Get it out there and then ask for the other person’s reaction.

Expect defensiveness and talk emotions

It’s normal, as we’ve said. The receiver’s brain circuits are in full flight. Emotions drive our behaviour and reactions, so talk emotions and move on from the so-called ‘facts’.

Resume normal relations

This is a great tip I picked up from a PhD student a few years ago. Let’s say, you’ve given your feedback and it’s gone as well as it could, but it wasn’t an easy conversation. Engage with the receiver in a straightforward conversation, in their space, not yours, to resume your relationship. Why? It ensures the receiver still feels included and they belong.

Good luck with your next feedback conversation!


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