Monday Musings
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Feedback on feedback

Hearing feedback

What do you do when someone else is providing you with feedback? Do you feel defensive? Thankful? Worried? Antagonistic? Relieved?

It depends, of course, on the situation.

We all get feedback from parents, spouses, siblings, partners, bosses, co-workers, friends, or even perfect strangers. Most of us also give others the benefit of our perspective. Yet, as you give advice, have you ever stopped to take the other person’s point of view and consider the ways in which you react and respond to feedback from others? Have you changed your approach in order to treat others as you would want to be treated?

Providing and receiving feedback has been on my mind recently. As one navigates through more and more stages of life, I sense a natural tendency to increase the number of times we dole out our wisdom to others. Perhaps it is human nature, but we act as if we want to ensure that what we’ve learned throughout our lifetime doesn’t go with us when we head off to our reward.

Sharing experiences and insights with others is a critical part of life; yet, these conversations are also freighted with challenges, as both participants often operate under an illusion of validity. When it comes to providing and receiving feedback, I’ve both observed and participated in the good, the bad, and the ugly. All can be instructive.

In thinking this through, I came up—naturally—with some advice to pass along. Consider this my giving feedback on the topic of feedback.

First, accept our differences Recognize that each of us provides and acknowledges suggestions and criticism in different ways. That may sound basic, but I fear that too often we believe that the person we are engaging will clearly see (and support) our point of view, if only they have the benefit of hearing it directly from us. The reality is that one’s first instincts upon receiving critiques will differ based on the relationship they have with the other individual, security in his/her own skin, comfort level with the action or  request in question, respect for the person making the suggestion, and personal values, among a host of other factors.

Like it or not, our amazing ability to make a cogent analysis followed by a transformative suggestion may be far down the list of how and why others choose to receive and accept our thoughts.

Next, take feedback seriously — When I’m at my best, my general response upon receiving feedback is to listen patiently and acknowledge that I’ve heard the suggestion. I try and give the advice serious consideration, perhaps talk with others to get a broader perspective when appropriate, and attempt to change my behavior when warranted. However, I’m often not at my best, or perhaps I’ve engaged my documented case of selective hearing.* If that’s the case, I may need to return to the individual and have a “seek first to understand” discussion before jumping to conclusions. But I have to be intentional no matter my mental state because our instinct is to quickly make up our minds based on what Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls the WYSIATI (what you see is all there is) rule. The confidence we have in our beliefs depends “mostly on the quality of the story” we can tell about what we see, even if we see just a little. This is true when both giving and receiving feedback.

Be positive —When providing feedback to others, I have learned that the old adage of “you catch more flies with honey (than vinegar)” holds true here as in so many areas of life. I will try and put the suggestion in a positive context, perhaps leading with something I admire before moving to the observation at hand.

Check your motive — Especially when giving advice, stop to think about why you believe it is important for you to impart some of your wisdom on your co-worker, partner, child, parent, sibling or friend. We may believe we have the best of intentions, but the one receiving the input may have an entirely different take on the conversation. Are you really working to improve a situation, or are you simply trying to make a point? There’s a big difference in how effective you will be given your motivation.

Finally, framing and stories matter Kahneman notes that different ways of presenting the same information can evoke different emotions. “The statement that ‘the odds of survival one month after surgery are 90%’ is more reassuring than the equivalent statement that ‘mortality within one month of surgery is 10%.'” We all have very different mental maps of how the world works, and our mind is a machine for jumping to conclusions. When giving feedback, it is important to understand that the individual receiving it likely has a very different story in his or her head about how the world works. This is true even in the most intimate of relationships. Think about what you want to say before the moment arrives.

When we get into what seems like an endless feedback loop, it may be useful to stop to examine the issue together (especially with a family member or intimate friend), using a more deliberative, logical, and slow way of thinking. We don’t take that approach because we find it much harder than the normal intuitive, emotional, and fast way of approaching problems. Our disagreements may relate to how the problems are framed, and yet we passively accept the framing provided by others. Kahneman suggests that we “rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound.” The moral feelings at the heart of so much advice and feedback are “attached to frames, to descriptions of reality, rather than to reality itself.”

The next time you hear “you’re not the person I want you to be,” or when you are inclined to tell someone else how you want them to live or work, stop. Then, think of ways to engage that deliberate, logical, slow way of thinking to ensure a more reality-based conversation. And finally, make certain you are not simply imparting your wisdom in an effort to ensure that it doesn’t go with you when you end your days on earth. Your children, partner, friends, or co-workers will thank you for that consideration.

Have a good week.

More to come…


*My father was a master at selective hearing, and I am pretty sure I’ve inherited that gene. In fact I have the medical documentation to prove it. As I told the story five years ago on More to Come…, I mentioned to my boss that I had an upcoming appointment with an ENT, in part because, “My wife says I don’t hear too well anymore.” My boss replied, “Well I think you hear just fine. You know, selective hearing is a documented phenomenon.” We both laughed, and I forgot about it, until I was in the chair at the ENT’s office. After pleasantries, Dr. Picken asked why I was there. I told her, in part because “My wife says I don’t hear too well anymore.” She just smiled and asked me, “Does anyone else think your hearing has deteriorated?” I remembered my boss’s comment, and relayed that. She said, “Your boss is right. Selective hearing is a documented phenomenon, and it almost always happens in conjunction with our families.” Guess whose hearing was determined to be fine that day? Whoops.

This entry was posted in: Monday Musings


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: I’d like to recommend… | More to Come...

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