When You Say It That Way, Your Feedback Fails

Colin (not his real name) sits down at the conference table with the company’s president, COO, and VP of HR.

Colin is the VP of Leadership Development and Organizational Development. He is about to go on a multi-state tour to ask employees: “What is it like working here? What makes it a positive experience and what makes it less than optimal?”

He opens up the meeting by saying, “I want to ask a few questions so I make sure I understand what you hope we will get from these meetings; what deliverables you’d like from me. Those sorts of things.”

Daryl (also not his name), the VP of Human Resources, jumps in first.

“’I am going to tell you what we DON’T want,” he begins with a forceful, authoritative voice tone.

“I was out at your common culture workshop in November and, by the way, that is THE best workshop I’ve ever seen, but you started out by talking with them about what their vision is. I’m not trying to tell you that you did it wrong or bad, but I wanted to tell you that has nothing to do with THIS. THIS is about the present moment; what’s happening now.”

Daryl’s voice tone alternates between being patronizing, a verbal pat on the head from a superior life form, to admonishing, like a parent correcting a wayward child.

What can we learn from this?

Commenting on Daryl’s approach, Colin noted later: “Isn’t it interesting that this guy would have to make his point in a shaming way. He could have just said it like, ‘This listening series is not about the future, it’s about now, so that’s how I would like to see it framed’.”

He went on to analyze Daryl’s clumsy, clearly passive-aggressive approach to giving feedback and presenting his recommendation. Colin noted that instead of simply matter-of-factly making his recommendation, Daryl had to bring up something in the past he disagreed with and then — “In this shaming, condescending way” — instructed Colin on what he should do for the upcoming program.

Learning from a bad example

Brian Oldfield once said, “No man is entirely worthless, he can always serve as a bad example.”

While a tad harsh — and amusing — Oldfield’s observation contains great wisdom. Some of our best teachers come in the form of people who model what NOT to do, and how NOT to be. This includes how to communicate and how to treat others.

When someone gives us feedback or communicates with us in a way that we find offensive, rather than just be upset with them, we can use it as a “teachable moment” and make sure WE are not doing the same to others.

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In that vein, Colin laughingly noted, “I do a workshop on how to use language to build relationships. I’ve been trying to come up with an example of how NOT to give feedback or make a suggestion, and now Daryl just gave me a great example I can now use in my workshops.”

How can you apply this?

You might be having trouble relating to Daryl’s approach because you don’t consciously try to put people down or shame them. That’s most likely the case, because the Daryls of the world probably aren’t reading this article; only people who really care about self-reflection, personal growth, and being as respectful and effective a communicator as possible will read this.

So given that you would not talk to someone in a patronizing or superior fashion, what CAN you learn from this interchange?

Don’t compliment if you don’t mean it — Daryl’s sincerity in saying Colin’s past workshop was THE best he’s ever seen was dubious at best, even without being followed by his criticism of it. Daryl has a history of wanting to outshine Colin, so giving him compliments was uncharacteristic for him. When we say, “That’s a great idea, but…” and follow it with all the reasons why it is NOT a good idea, we instantly arouse suspicion. We also lose credibility because we have essentially just lied.

Don’t bring up the past if it isn’t necessary — There was no need to reference Colin’s approach to the past program. Doing so added no value and only started his recommendation off on bad footing. If a request does require referencing the past, and past mistakes (or perceived mistakes), you can do so without adding drama by using a tone of incredulity, disapproval, or some other negative-reaction triggering voice tone. If at all possible, focus on the present and future.

Don’t harp on what you DON’T want — Better still, don’t mention what you don’t want unless you have reason to believe the person is leaning in that direction. In Colin’s case, there was no need for Daryl to bring up the prior workshop. He could have simply said “I think it’s important that this listening tour focuses specifically on the present; what it’s like for them right now. With our limited time with each group, I think we would be smart to simply focus on what is.” That way, he could make his request without linking it to how — in his opinion — Colin had dropped the ball in the previous workshop. (As a side note, Colin is an extremely skilled facilitator and Daryl is not, so his opinion on Colin’s approach to the last workshop is questionable.)

Use a neutral, drama-free voice tone — There’s a reason why “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” is an old adage. Voice tone has a huge effect on the impact of a message. Because voice tone is processed in the same areas of the brain as emotions are, using a harsh, scolding, patronizing, or angry voice tone is like pushing the “Upset” button in a person’s brain. It virtually guarantees you will trigger a negative emotional response. Interesting, in recent interviews with millennials, they frequently cited the huge effect delivery style had on them, when their manager was giving them feedback. Over and over, millennials said they WANT clear, direct feedback when they are not performing the way their manager wants. They just don’t want it done in a stern, parent-scolding-child way.

While Daryl’s approach to giving feedback and offering his perspective offers a great example of what NOT to do, perhaps the best takeaway from this story is to constantly be noticing how people give you feedback and offer their suggestions, and notice your reaction to different approaches. Use this information to add and subtract to your communication repertoire.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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