Offering feedback is often tricky. How much more so, when it is directed 'upwards', to somebody above us in a hierarchy. How can we ensure our feedback is respectful and appreciated? Is there a way to stop critical feedback sounding critical?
Recently, a friend grabbed me as she was dashing out the door. "Quickly!" she said. "How can I criticise my boss?"
Knowing her situation, I responded with sympathetic curiosity. "Have things got that tough?"
"Yes," she said, "but I don't have time to go into that now - just tell me what to do!"
"You want a quick formula?"
"Go for it!"
This is what I said:
LISTEN - SPEAK - LISTEN
This first 'Listen!' is to test out whether the other person is willing and able to listen to us. There's no point speaking if the other person cannot hear. (Something we may overlook in our eagerness to make a point.)
- Signpost! Flag up that there's something you want to talk about - and listen to the answer. Help the other person by letting them know there's an issue, before diving in. Signal the size of the issue, and how long you think the discussion will take.
"This is just a small matter ..."
Or, "This is something that's been bothering me for a while ..."
- Dangle a carrot! As soon as you mention there's a problem, set out your 'good' reasons for discussing it; your positive goal. This reassures the other person that you're on solid ground. (You aren't having a go at them for no reason.)
"I'd like the chance to discuss this because it's important to me to have more clarity about my role in the team / more efficient ways of doing things / happier working relationships, etc." (What you need depends on your situation.)
- Offer choice! Double check whether the other person is okay to hear you just now. Arrange when the best time would be. This shows them respect, and reassures them that you are taking their needs into account, as well as addressing your own.
- Use your antennae! Tune into the other person as they are just now. Are they able to create space in their day - and inside themselves - to listen to you?
Warning! Be prepared to listen more!
Approached respectfully and sensitively in this way, people often respond by talking, not listening! (e.g. "I guess it's [such-and-such], yes, it's been on my mind too, and I must say that I think...!") But don't worry, this is probably the best thing that can happen. By listening now, you can create a space for their views - which will be the best preparation for asking them to listen to yours.
Tip: If this happens, remember to listen fully! Try not to mentally prepare your answer as you listen, or hop up and down waiting for your turn. Give the other person your full attention; if necessary, your empathy.
Another friend was telling Peter about his boss. "He's a psychopath!" he exclaimed. "Take today. I get multiple missed messages on my mobile and landline, then this single one-liner over email: "'Where r u? Where is the report!!!'"
Peter's friend was spluttering with indignation. He was full of critical judgements about his boss's behaviour (and no wonder!). So how can he express this to his boss in a way that is most likely to lead to constructive change?
Speaking from and for ourselves ('Owned language')
There's a mysterious paradox at the heart of giving feedback. We think we need to tell somebody else about their attitudes and behaviour (which may feel daunting, especially if the person is above you in the hierarchy). And if we do this, they are most likely to become defensive - however calm, kind or professional we try to be - because they hear blame.
Although we are triggered by somebody else's behaviour, we are on firmest ground when we describe the effect of that behaviour on ourselves. The strongest, most accurate and respectful form of feedback comes when we own our experience, and speak only from and for ourselves.
"When I received your messages today, I felt pretty stressed and indignant, because I want to deliver on time, and I take pride in doing so. In general, I'd find it helpful to know in advance if a deadline is urgent. Then I can make sure you have what you need in good time ...."
[For more about how to build connection when you make a point, see February's blog: Q 15: "Love, love me do!", (especially, 'Three questions which create a connection').]
But people behave the way they do for their own reasons and, however bizarre they may look to us, those reasons make sense to them. If we listen now, we learn more about the other person and the situation, and we increase the connection between us. When connection is good, trust builds naturally.
So having told his boss what bothered him, Peter's friend could now throw the ball into his boss's court with an empathic question, and listen again.
"Still, I guess you sent me all those messages because you were pretty stressed on your side. Did something unexpected crop up? Or had you just understood that I'd get you the report earlier?"
When we listen, we hear how our words have affected the other person. This is something we need to know (it's their feedback to us). They may need our acknowledgement and understanding of the situation, or simply the chance to explain how it arose. Or they may wish to discuss how to do things differently next time. Now is the time to practice active listening.
The empathy sandwich
LISTEN - SPEAK - LISTEN is really an empathy sandwich. Surrounding our problem with understanding, both for the other person and ourselves, we give it the best chance of being taken seriously. Once that has happened it won't take long to find a solution. A new direction opens up naturally.
By Elizabeth English
with Peter Kuklis