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April 2019

The Loops of Feedback 

I help my clients develop successful workplace communication skills. And usually that work is fun, positive, upbeat: people want to give exciting presentations, learn to effectively express their thoughts, demonstrate leadership through active listening. It helps them achieve their company's/team's/division's goals. But when talk turns to giving and/or receiving feedback, it's as if a cloud has suddenly passed over the sun and threatens to stay there. . . forever.

I have experienced that visceral dread. But it has taught me some interesting things, which I think will resonate with anyone who has ever found herself stuck in the Feedback Loop of Doom. As a playwright I have felt a chill during audience talkback sessions, a feeling that comes from the fear that my work will be judged and found wanting. Because often, it is. After hearing a play at an early public reading, people give all sorts of "suggestions." Many of these boil down to: "Well, that's not how would have written this play!" Anyone who has been given such unfocused criticism partway through a project or process knows that this is not helpful. In fact, it slows down the playwright's or employee's momentum, or stops it altogether. 

The best talkbacks happen within a supportive relationship, under a framework of stated rules of engagement. The audience is asked to answer the playwright's specific questions: What moment resonated with you? What overall image did the play leave you with? Which character made the strongest impression? We don't want prescriptions on how to "improve" our work, nor do we want proscriptions.  Give us answers to our burning questions and trust that we'll take it from there.

A playwright, like anyone engaged with a project, wants to know what's working and what isn't. But we don’t trust those who diagnose what's wrong and how to fix it after hearing the piece only once. When audiences (or supervisors or colleagues) offer non-constructive criticism, they put barriers in our way. When they tell us how they would do it better, they undercut our confidence, initiative, creative thinking. And on the flip side, when blanket praise is given--along with a command to do it 'just like that again!"--confusion reigns.

In their excellent article "The Feedback Fallacy"  in the most recent  Harvard Business ReviewMarcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall explore what the latest research tells us about the best way to give feedback. When I read it I immediately recognized the strategies they advocate. Because their preferred method is very like what good talkback facilitators ask audiences to do. "We humans," Buckingham and Goodall advise, "do not do well when someone whose intentions are unclear tells us where we stand, how good we "really" are, and what we must do to fix ourselves. We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works."

I think they're on to something!

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