Is there really anyone out there who hears those word and thinks “oh goody, yes please”?
If there is, you’re a much better person than me!
Take this example, it was a long time ago – but I still remember it like it was yesterday.
I’d given a sales presentation to a prospective client with Helen, a new Associate who I was mentoring. Despite not being a traditionally qualified ‘sales professional’, I was actually quite good at what I did. I believed passionately in the product that I was selling, and I had my own sales ‘muscle’ that I used to be effective.
Helen, on the other hand, was very much a qualified sales person. She had worked in sales for one market-leading multinational company for the fifteen years since her graduation. She had been on every sales course suggested – and undoubtedly knew her stuff.
Because of the nature of what we do, I already knew a lot of things about our prospective client ahead of the presentation. I knew that he wasn’t the ultimate decision maker. Because he was operating outside of his area of experience and expertise, he didn’t believe that he had the authority to own this decision. I knew that he felt uncomfortable. He thought that at this stage in his career he was neither sufficiently equipped nor sufficiently knowledgeable to make this decision. I also knew that he was not a risk-taker. He was so very concerned about making the ‘wrong’ decision. I knew he would need ‘time’ to think about what I’d proposed. He needed to process the information I had imparted, to check it out and seek some reassurance from his team. I also knew that this first meeting was (at best) only the beginning of what would be a longer process.
The meeting went well. I was animated and enthusiastic, he was receptive, polite, and interested. We left with a commitment to an introduction to his boss. Given what I knew about him, I was pleased with this outcome, and was silently congratulating myself.
How not to give feedback
As we walked to our cars, Helen looked at me sideways, breathed deeply, smiled and uttered those dreaded words: “Can I give you some feedback?” Independently of my brain, I heard myself say: “OK – sure”. In my head I was screaming “Nooooooo!!”
Helen then proceeded to surgically and systematically take apart my performance, the ‘sales process’ I was (not) following, my tone of voice, my body language, the chair that I’d chosen to sit on, my hand gestures, the speed at which I’d spoken, not taking notes, and ultimately my failure to ask for his business. I listened (despite the deafening roaring in my head). I thanked her for her feedback, I got in my car and sped away … and didn’t speak to her ever again.
To be fair, I know that Helen was convinced that she had given me constructive feedback. It was feedback that she would have actively solicited and would have been pleased to receive. She’d not stopped to consider that I am not her.
For, as she was speaking to me, another voice in my head was telling me that since she was the expert at this, and despite my years of solid performance, I was clearly pretty poor at what I did. It was meant well, yet I was taking it personally. I heard personal criticism and not constructive feedback.
Helen had seen the lack of a confirmed sale as ‘failure’. Whereas for me, a commitment to another meeting was in itself (in this instance) a very positive outcome. In her previous organisation, sales meetings were highly analysed and prescriptive in their approach. She was used to selling a product that her customer knew and quite frankly always wanted! We were selling a service. Whilst I do believe in a consultative selling process, I have also always believed that it needs to be tempered by a sincere engagement with the other person.
To be ruthlessly fair to Helen, there was truth in some of her feedback. I subsequently appraised my ‘technique’, taking on board some of her comments. However, even after all these years, I still find myself unable to resist the need to defend my position. I have to point out that whilst Helen knew how to sell, and it worked in her previous environment, she never did close a sale for us.
Individuals react differently to feedback
Feedback for some of us, like Helen, is relatively easy to give and straightforward to receive. For others, like me, it can be a more tortuous experience, and the giving and/or receiving of feedback is far more complex.
Individuals react very differently to feedback. We will all have met people in our careers to whom we have been extremely complimentary. We might have said many genuinely positive things to them while highlighting maybe one opportunity for development. Yet all the recipient will hear is this one piece of perceived ‘criticism’. For others, the reverse is true. Hearing only the one positive message in a piece of otherwise fairly tough feedback.
Like anything that involves people, in ‘feedback’ there is often a transaction at work and a subtext at play. There is cause and effect. There is talking and there is hearing. What one person says may not be what the other person hears. As in any form of communication, the ability to understand the others’ drives and motivations will improve the efficiency of that transaction.
If I am a natural communicator who talks easily and who works things out by talking – even by being ‘chatty’ – and if I am relatively unfazed by the possibility of failure, I would much rather that you tell me stuff (as I will you). Because if you don’t, how on earth can I (or you) do something about it?
If, on the other hand, I am a ‘perfectionist’ driven to deliver high quality work and need to think long and hard before doing anything – tending to ‘worry’ about what I do and say (especially if operating outside of my comfort zone) – then you are unlikely to know what’s going on in my head. Your “just here to chat stuff through” can, without you ever intending it to, be deeply wounding to me.
If there is a peer relationship at work here, it will be tough enough. However, if there is a boss/subordinate dynamic to take into account that can inevitably make things even more complex.
One of the tenants of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is that there is no such thing as failure – only feedback! Some of us will no doubt struggle with this concept! But if we persevere, it can be of tremendous value in our ongoing professional development. As Woody Allen said “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”
Some thoughts on giving and receiving feedback
So, if you find yourself in the inevitable position of needing to give someone feedback, here are some points worth considering:
- Are you evaluating against the same yardstick? ‘Success’ may mean something different to me than it does you.
- Is any personal bias at work? You will do things the way you need to, other people might do it differently and can achieve the same objective by exercising different muscles.
- Is it honest feedback delivered sincerely with the intention to improve? If not, don’t do it! Feedback by definition is historical, the person you are talking to needs to be able to use this information in the future otherwise it has no purpose.
- Is the feedback necessary – does it really need to be said? You might want to say it but does the person need to hear it? How will it affect your relationship? Do you really not want to ever hear from me again?!
- Are you feeding back in a way that makes sense to the recipient? Feedback is of course usually There are individuals who might like to receive it in a written format first, so that they can reflect on it before talking about it.
- Are you feeding back to the right person?
- Is it possible for the individual to act upon the feedback?
- Check that the individual is receptive. Know their drives and motivations and guard against perceived criticism. Couch your feedback according to the needs of the person you are talking to – not how you might prefer to hear it.
- Ask for feedback on your feedback!
- If the feedback is not well received, let it go! Explain and clarify but don’t become defensive of your feedback. Defensiveness is the antibody to feedback.
- Be sincere whatever the message. There is much guidance about positive reinforcement – giving as much positive feedback as ‘negative’. I think there is much to be said for adopting that if you have something to say – then simply say it!
- Don’t store things up until you have numerous things to talk about. Feedback needs to be given as soon as possible.
And if you’re on the receiving end, here are some thoughts on handling feedback:
- Know yourself – and if needs be, brace yourself!
- People are generally kind and well intentioned – remember that! Sometimes it’s taken real courage for the person to open their mouth to you, and they have probably done so because they care.
- It’s usually not personal – so don’t make it so!
- It’s ok to ignore it! if it doesn’t resonate, tune it out. It’s often one person’s opinion and it may not be reliable. You might want to confirm it with others to be sure.
- Choose to listen to the people you trust or check out feedback from others with people that you trust.
- Don’t argue – by all means clarify and thank the individual, just don’t get defensive. As we’ve said, defensiveness is the antibody of feedback!
- Face-to-face feedback is infinitely preferable to any form of electronic/email/social media feedback – where no-one looks you in the eye – take all of this with a huge pinch of salt.
- Evaluate it! It might not make sense immediately, but it might if you take time to mull it over.
Ok, so time for me to be brave. I’m asking for feedback – let me know what you think! And now that you know how that makes me feel…be kind!