Feedback: An Uncomfortable Necessity

There is nothing more dreadful than that unavoidable, mandatory, sometimes awkward conversation slyly begotten by the word, “Feedback.” Regardless of our vocation, our experience, or our competence, the inevitable times we are asked to reflect on, defend or explain our actions can be difficult and at the very least, not the most comfortable. No one wakes up in the morning eager to receive “Constructive” criticism; and, oddly enough, although you would think that “Feedback” can be both positive and negative, it is overwhelmingly filled with negative connotations with but a slight err of positivity, if only to “sandwich” the less flattering commentary.

Throughout over a decade of formal education and working as a junior attending amongst those of the much more experienced Old Guard, I have been “lucky” to receive both formal and informal feedback in multiple arenas. From tests, to performance reviews, to evaluations, to being emailed to set up untimely meetings on my free time, despite my loathing of such, I’m no stranger to the rhetoric. Some are better than others at giving feedback and likewise, some of us are better or worse at receiving it. So are there things that we can do to make this excruciating experience a little less gut-wrenching? Can we handle these talks in certain ways that make us less apt to feeling ill and wanting to curl up under a desk in the darkness?

The Players

The Givers – Word choice and tone can make or break simple communications. Within giving advice to someone, whether a learner, a colleague, or a subordinate, there are ways that are nice and mean, direct and circumferential, delicate or stern. Using the word, “concerns,” can break easier on gentle ears then, “complaints,” but direct words is superior to indirect thoughts – don’t sugar coat everything. The tension might be brought down, only if minimally, and ease the discussion of facts that someone is, lo and behold, not perfect. There are ways to broach these subjects in cautious manners and emphasizing the goal of team improvement is likely one of the less contentious starting points. Also, remembering what it’s like to be the taker as below is hopefully the most important point of empathy.

The Receivers – On the flip side, I remind myself that criticism should always be honest and with an intention of improvement – taking it can be hard, we don’t like to think of ourselves as with fault, but in the end maybe it helps to iron out the faults. No one can see themselves from the outside looking in, it takes someone else to do that. Obviously atrocious behaviors and societally unaccepted choices or performances against standards of care or job guidelines aside, feedback should have the goal of changing future behaviors to synergistically create a better performance – at work, at home, in transit between the two. If we made no effort to advance our positions and improve, where would our personal lives or our society really end up? Progression requires progress. I have tried to listen with an open heart and a vision from the other side to modulate any of the things I’ve done, and it’s always hard and uncomfortable. It gets more tolerable trying hard to “not sweat the small things.”

The details

Time – Immediate feedback, on the spot, without a break, is likely usually preferred. The mistake, or “learning opportunity” is still fresh and doesn’t build up the emotions of time that can cause perseveration on guilt and unworthiness. Waiting too long can draw on these feelings and foster resentment. On the other hand, sometimes tough situations need de-escalation and mindfulness of instinct, to give a second to reflect on an instance objectively and without clouded vision. A median of the two can purport to the least awkward and most effective time. I once waited three months for a formerly announced meeting for performance review, and in the end, I had cycled through various emotions so many times in the waiting period, that in the end, the details became too blurry for effectiveness.

Place – Virtual interviews are here to stay, but I wonder if they’re always necessary. People often question why meetings are held on things that can be emailed? Why is a video interview needed when a telephone call might do? There is unlikely to ever be the perfect point of convergence, so perhaps there’s a point in which time is sacrificed for place or vice versa. Public settings might not always be great, but sometimes they are. Quiet places are likely preferred, as much as the silence compounds the emotions.

I love feedback just as much as anyone else does… It’s always hard to not be self-critical, especially in driven individuals. I have not only had to receive but also had to give feedbacks via multiple fronts on a variety of platforms. How someone receives feedback can tell a lot about them and also has affects on moving forward with the person giving the feedback. I always wish there was another way to do it, but since there isn’t, I do wish one thing: We should choose to give feedback for feedback’s sake when there are also good things to say without a negative component. Wouldn’t it be nice to have your boss call to say, “Hey, you’re doing a good job. Period. Keep it up.” If only, if only.

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