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The Art of Giving and Accepting Feedback: Correcting Mistakes Respectfully

“What were you thinking sending out that document without letting me review it first?”   Judgmental, emotional, imprecise, and not actionable, this type of feedback is ineffective.

“I see that the document was submitted without me seeing it.  I need to review all material prior to submission to ensure consistency and accuracy.  I understand you were working against a tight deadline and appreciate your effort to submit things on time. In the future, please send me documents first and indicate the exact deadline so I can be appropriately responsive. Moving forward, how do you plan to handle documents due in tight deadlines?”    Observant, objective, respectful, and actionable, this type of feedback is effective.

We know that feedback is an important part of work and learning from mistakes, but we tend to resist giving it and we mostly don’t like getting it either. As the Harvard Business Review article The Feedback Fallacy outlines, feedback often becomes a sort of punishment that people dread. The trends of ‘radical transparency’ and ‘real-time 360 reviews’ can create a culture of harsh criticism that is unhelpful. The article states that using feedback to tell people what we think of their performance hinders rather than promotes excellence. The purpose of feedback as described in this blog, though, is for changing a specific behavior, not for giving an evaluation of overall work performance. 

Some leaders with whom I’ve worked tell me that they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, even though they want a behavior to change.  On the flip side, I hear from professionals that they feel bad when getting feedback, as if that they have let somebody down or shouldn’t make mistakes.  When we fall into these traps, we miss out on an important opportunity to communicate clearly.  Delivered and received properly, feedback is a fantastic mechanism for mistake correction. It can also improve interpersonal work relationships by making it clear that it is okay to make mistakes and learn from them, and that people are important enough to spend the time to communicate openly and directly.

The art of feedback is in being objective and respectful, both when giving and receiving.  We need to keep impulsive emotional reactions out of the process, despite what we feel in the moment and what we presume may be the reason for the mistake.

Giving Feedback

When we give feedback, we need to focus on the problem and not the person.  Judgement, evaluation, and analysis are not helpful because they are subjective and open to multiple interpretations. What ishelpful is feedback that includes four key components:

  1. Address the specific behavior
  2. Describe objectively what was observed
  3. Make an explicit actionable request
  4. Confirm that the other person has heard what we said

It is also helpful to acknowledge something good about the person’s efforts, intentions, or something they did well in the situation.  We know we have provided feedback in a respectful and effective way if the person is able to hear our request without getting defensive; they hear that we want a change in action not a change in person.

Accepting Feedback

When we get feedback, our job is to accept it. Easier said than done, because we tend to feel attacked and defensive.  The benefit of accepting feedback is we learn from our mistakes and are less likely to repeat them. The art of accepting feedback is to listen carefully and not take things personally.  We can:

  1. Listen without interrupting
  2. Receive the information objectively
  3. Ask clarifying questions
  4. State our intentions to consider the request

Even if the message is delivered in a judgmental way, with practice we can hear just the request for change in behavior. We can filter an unskillful delivery of feedback with our listening and react gracefully and respectfully using the four steps outlined.

Mastering the art of feedback requires keeping our emotions in check—when giving and receiving—and that can be challenging. But integrating effective feedback into work relationships drives value by creating an environment where mistakes can be made and fixed, with people still feeling valued.

Where Attention Goes, Energy Flows: Be Attuned in Conversations

Where attention goes, energy flows.  That is the name of a meditation in my current rotation on Insight Timer.  This concept applies to most things in life, including communication.  When we are interacting with others, we have the choice of where we place our attention. In conversation we have the option of focusing on ourselves or on the other person.  Mostly we shift back and forth absent-mindedly.  We can focus on ourselves without even realizing it. Have you ever found yourself tuning out the person talking to craft your own point or response?  I know I have. But, when we make a conscious choice about where to place attention, we become better communicators.  By intentionally focusing attention, we direct where our energy flows. Those with whom we are interacting perceive this through our nonverbal communication.  Although it is hard to put into words, we all intuitively know when somebody else is really paying attention to us or not.  

We become better communicators when we are intentional about where we place our attention; when we are attuned we gather more information about our environment, which leads to greater understanding and more options of how we respond.  We notice what is going on internally for ourselves and what may be going on for others by reading their body language and listening carefully to what they are saying.  It makes it easier for us to craft thoughtful and inquisitive responses to what they say because, by deliberately maintaining our attention on the person talking, we pick up more than just their words.  This skill takes practice; it does not happen when we absent-mindedly shift. 

We can practice this shifting of attention on inanimate objects or sounds in order for us to improve at intentionally shifting while in conversation.  Airports are a great place to practice while waiting for a flight. We can listen to the activities around us, bringing one into focus and ignoring the rest, and then switching to another and bringing that into focus.  For example, listen to the announcements about flights over the public address system for a minute, and then shift to listening to the airline attendants helping passengers check in.  We can shift our attention visually too, looking from one passenger to another in the waiting area, noticing something we see as positive about each of them.  In addition to being great practice in deciding where our attention and energy flows, this can also be quite entertaining.

We can also practice in everyday conversations with family and friends.  When others are talking, notice where your attention is focused. Where are you looking?  What are you hearing? Are you hearing every word said, or just some of the words and also the response you are planning in your head? Are you picking up what is being communicated through tone of voice or facial expressions? It is not beneficial for us to judge ourselve in this practice, just to notice and then set the intention of how to focus attention so energy flows in the desired direction. Practicing on a daily basis in low-stakes situations makes it easier to do in high-stakes conversations.

My clients that practice this intentional attention tell me that it becomes easier to really listen, that conversations flow much more naturally, and that they are surprised at how much more information they are able to learn from others.  In addition, they build a reputation for being thoughtful and attentive with the people in their company and industry, a key component for effective leadership.  

Mindfulness is Vital to Exceptional Leadership

Leaders excel by being aware of self and others, and the situation at hand. We lead in a time of perpetual chaotic change, we drink from a fire hose of information, and we interact with people from around the globe with different perspectives, cultural norms, and communication styles. To achieve high performance, we need to uptake massive information quickly, process in a non-biased open-minded manner, and respond compassionately. Mindfulness practice gets us there. With training, through meditation or other mindful techniques, our minds become more sensitive and less reactive to the stimuli that are constantly flowing through, permitting us to move out of automatic mode and make more deliberate choices about what we say and how we act.

Leaders Need to Train Their Minds As Well as Their Bodies a recent Forbes article explained.  Based on information from Megan Reitz, researcher and author, three important mindfulness practices are meta-awareness, allowing, and inquiry. Meta-awareness is the ability in the moment to notice and acknowledge our own thoughts, feelings, sensations, and impulses – understanding that they are temporary and we can choose if we act on them. Allowing is a kind and compassionate attitude – letting things be without judgment.  Inquiry is a curiosity of the present moment – wondering how the current situation will unfold. We build a leaders mind by practicing these techniques, just like we build muscles through exercise. Mindful leadership is additive to other skills and techniques required to be an excellent leader as heightened awareness simply helps us apply learned skills more wisely.

Entrepreneur article, Mindfulness Isn’t Just a Trend, It’s Key to Being a Better Leader emphasized the benefit of unlocking intrinsic motivation for today’s workforce that is seeking meaning and purpose.  Based on the extensive research of Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard, mindfulness generates greater mental effectiveness for the realization of a leader’s potential. In their recent book, “The Mind of the Leader” the authors’ claim mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion are essential leadership skills. Mindfulness, in particular being present, attentive, and curious is what teaches us how our own minds work. “By understanding how your mind works, you can lead yourself effectively.  By understanding and leading yourself effectively, you can understand others and be able to lead them more effectively.” Long-term mindfulness practice leads to selflessness, where we no longer constantly act as if we are the center of the universe, and to compassion, where we are able to take others’ perspectives into consideration before we speak or act.

In the words of LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner,  “Compassion is putting ourselves in the shoes of another person and seeing the world through their lens for the sake of alleviating their suffering.” For him compassionate leadership meant “pausing, and being a spectator to my own thoughts, especially when getting emotional. It meant walking a mile in the other person’s shoes; and understanding their hopes, their fears, their strengths and their weaknesses. And it meant doing everything within my power to set them up to be successful.”

Here is the rub. Being an attentive leader simultaneously processing information about ourselves, others, and the environment is not easy. I have practiced mindfulness almost daily since 1999 and I am still constantly learning about my own mind.  That said, I have developed acute sensitivity to my thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses, and to others in my environment.  That allows me to make decisions based on a greater amount of information.  My practice also allows me to change course quickly when I discover a bad habit arising or see that my current course is not effective.  There is a good reason it is called ‘mindfulness practice’ because it is an ongoing effort and, just like exercise, it takes constant hard work to see the benefits.

We are better leaders when in a chaotic moment we can simultaneously be aware of our own thoughts, feelings, and sensations and have a broad enough vantage to incorporate diverse perspectives of others.  Tapping all that information we can make better decisions and communicate compassionately. To get there, we practice mindfulness daily. There are now several meditation apps to support us, including my favorite Insight Timer.  Then when we are aware of something awry in a given situation, be that in our own minds or in what we observe in others, we pause, take the time to acknowledge and allow what is happening, and then respond with intention.