If this question makes you feel like running for the nearest exit, it’s not surprising. When most of us hear the word “feedback” we expect that what will be coming next is one or more of the following: judgments, advice, opinions, or maybe “constructive criticism”. The unspoken belief in offering this “help” is that you (the listener) don’t really know what you “should” do or say, how you should do it, or even what’s good for you and that I the speaker who is offering the gift of my feedback, fortunately for you, do.
The offer of such unsolicited input, particularly when it is presented as a gift, is likely to activate some trepidation on the part of the recipient of the invitation, not just because of the implied judgment in the offer, but also because frequently, the intention behind the offer has less to do with giving away something of value than it does with a desire to reaffirm my own helpfulness or wisdom by demonstrating how much I know, even if that means implicitly putting myself above you.
Of course this is not always the case. There are exceptions to this rule, but when feedback is delivered ineffectively or insensitively, it can art easily result in misunderstandings and hurt feelings, the opposite of what either person is hoping for.
Part of the problem lies in a widespread misunderstanding about the word itself. Simply put, what most people call feedback, isn’t. In the context of relationships, feedback is information that describes the experience of the receiver of a communication delivered by another person. The receiver feeds back to the deliverer a description of what he or she experienced upon receiving the input. Feedback has less to do with the content of the message than it does to do with my subjective response to it.
The reason that feedback can be useful in relationships of all types, is that none of us can ever know for sure exactly how another person was impacted by our communication and the only way that we have of finding out how it “landed” for them is to check it out with them. Most of us do this far more frequently than we realize by paying attention to the other person’s facial expressions, body language, and other non-verbal indicators that reveal something about the recipient’s response to our communication.
If we conclude that the person to whom we’re speaking is bored, irritated, disengaged, distracted, upset, impatient, or exhibiting any signs that tell us that we may not be getting the kind of response that we desire from them, we may modify the content and/or style of our delivery, in order to generate a different response from them. This shift in our delivery usually takes place automatically, outside of our conscious awareness. We redesign our delivery in order to provoke a different response. We can and often do check out their experience by asking if they understand what we’re saying, whether or not they agree with us, or any other request designed to get explicit information regarding their experience. We can also ask them to tell us what it is they understand we said; to put our message in their own words. Feedback, in this case is distinct from judgments, interpretations, opinions, advice, beliefs, or suggestions. It is simply an expression of the sensations, emotions, and/or perceptions that arise in response to receiving a particular communication.
For example, if someone that I am speaking with attempts to persuade me to agree with his argument then asks me for feedback, my response would have nothing to do with the content of his message, but would instead reflect the internal experience that arose in me in response to receiving it. Examples of feedback could be “I felt pressured to agree with you” or “I am confused” or I felt supported and understood by you” or “I’m not exactly sure of what you’re asking me”.
The purpose of feedback is to provide information to the sender so that she can more adequately assess the results and effects of her communication to see if the desired outcome (there is always an intention behind every communication) has been fulfilled. In receiving feedback we have the opportunity to assess and if necessary, make changes or corrections that might bring about the desired outcome in our communication.
A receiver must have a certain level of skillfulness in order to deliver feedback that is sensitive, accurate and useful. Giving honest feedback exposes the giver to the possibility of saying something that could have an adverse or unpleasant effect on the receiver. It could trigger feelings of anger, disappointment, guilt, confusion or other emotions. Therefore the giver of feedback must be willing to risk an upset in the relationship, and trust that there will be a mutual intent on both parties’ parts to work out any misunderstandings or difficulties.
Feedback should only be given when it has been clearly established that the speaker desires it. Unsolicited input is likely to be unappreciated, regardless of how truthful or accurate it may be. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to check things out. Since the underlying and often unconscious intention of much of our communication, is to create a particular response or impression in the listener, feedback is an invaluable instrument. If we don’t have access to this information we have no way of determining how successful we have been in our communication and what, if any adjustments or corrections we might need to make. In addition, feedback can illuminate hidden attachments, expectations, concerns or desires that we might otherwise fail to recognize which could provide us with valuable information that reveal our own concealed agenda or competing commitments. The degree to which we are open to and accepting of feedback, is the degree to which we can increase our ability to recognize and accept the truth of our experience and our impact upon others.
One of the greatest benefits of exchanging feedback is that it promotes intimacy, trust, respect and appreciation in relationships. Imbedded in the request for feedback is the implication that the speaker respects and trusts the listener and values her response. Thus every time that feedback is delivered, there is the potential for a deepening of the experience of self-understanding and interpersonal trust.
Balancing self-awareness with honesty, sensitivity, and eloquence requires a high degree of skill but with practice it is possible to master this art. The best coaches, lovers, managers, leaders, teachers and parents have done that. They didn’t start at the top of their game, they got there by learning from their experiences, paying attention to the feedback that life naturally and continuously generates, noticing the consequences of their words and actions, then integrating the lessons into their lives. Simple. Not necessarily easy, but worth the effort.