Feedback pros and cons

Do you, like me, have a love/hate relationship to feedback?

I try to be open to feedback, but it’s an uphill battle. I’m a fairly defensive person. Whether that’s due to upbringing or nature, I’ve long since given up trying to find out why. I’ve just learned to manage it (sort of). Probably my big breakthrough moment came about 7 years ago, when I was working with the Portland Police Bureau on re-designing their Crisis Intervention Training (now part of their Behavioral Health Unit). I was part of the initial team running the pilot. After each day, the facilitators would stand in front of the room, and have participants critique each section. It had to be rigorous, because this was the last stop before going live with it. That was what I call now a “no-frills” approach to giving feedback. We needed them to be ruthless and honest, and they were.

It was tough, but it taught me a few things about getting, asking for and making use of feedback.  Recently, I asked you, readers of this blog, for feedback on the blog, as I’m going to be making some changes over the next few months. Reading through your responses (which I’ll share soon), was enlightening, and gave me more thoughts on the feedback process.

Here are some thoughts on giving, getting, and above all, making use of feedback:

  1. Remember the goal. Feedback can be tough, and it’s helpful to remember why you want it. What’s the big goal? Who are you serving? With the police, I found it helpful to remember the urgency behind the process, people’s lives at stake, the human suffering that was the point of the program. I put myself in the shoes of those directly affected, and thought, if it’s not easy for them, why should the feedback process be easy for me? Remember who the ultimate benefactor of the feedback process will be. If there’s a lot at stake, then the feedback process should match that.
  2.  If you don’t know what you’re asking, you won’t know what you’re getting. It’s like a science experiment. If you aren’t sure what’s in the test tube, nor what you drop into it, you have no idea what that bubbling green stuff means. Back to feedback: if you are not specific about you ask, and why you want to know, the answers won’t add anything to your knowledge. In fact, you will interpret the answers according to what you already think. For instance, asking whether a particular training segment was helpful or not, “yes” or “no” won’t give you anything to work with. You have to include “why or why not,” or “what was missing?”  in order to make that information useful for yourself.  In general, I like to steer away from evaluative questions unless they’re accompanied by “why.” Though “why” is frowned upon for various reasons, I like asking “why”? I want to know what people are looking for, what they’re needing, and what specifically works and what doesn’t.
  3.  Feedback should start with the feedback design itself: we need to ask about everything we do, not just about the things we think are important. In other words, there is a lot to what we provide. There is the specific service or product we provide but there is also the way we interact with people. How easy is it for people to access my service? To interact with me? We often emphasize the quality of our core service in our feedback process, but that may not be the biggest takeaway for others. For instance, I may be good at what I do, but I’m difficult to work with: unreliable, slow to respond, hard to understand, etc. Or, I may be great at presenting or facilitating, but afterwards, people are left with questions, or don’t know how to apply what I’ve taught. Feedback should cover all aspects of what we do, not just the things we deem important.
  4.  Those who bother to give feedback have strong feelings. Pro and contra, for and against. Generally speaking, those who bother to take the time have something to say. So, that has to be taken with a grain of salt. And sometimes those who weren’t impressed don’t bother to give feedback so you get a skewed sample. There’s really not much to do to correct for this, except to get more input on a regular basis. Rather than a “feedback process” or feedback form at the end of something, an ongoing process of giving and getting feedback, of checking on how things are going, and making adjustments could make the whole process less clunky and less one-sided.

Those are some thoughts. And I’m aware that there are a lot of arguments that feedback doesn’t matter. It’s skewed, imperfect, and biased. It nourishes short term assessments; it’s subjective; it doesn’t take into account individual differences, tasks, and styles. It fosters rivalry, and basically, it fails the test of construct validity: it doesn’t do what it sets out to do. And there’s the argument that if we’re really self-aware, we should already know the feedback.

The fact is, knowing our strengths and weaknesses doesn’t mean we know our impact on others. Those are two very different things. As I wrote earlier, I know I am defensive. But do I know what that does to those who work with me? Do I know the extra work that causes? Do I know how much time, uncertainty, or stress that causes? Do I know what they don’t tell me, because they don’t want to run into my defensive response?

And the argument that we should be self-aware only speaks to feedback about our skills or style; it doesn’t speak to the problem of goals. Without feedback, we never know if we actually accomplished what we set out to do. Did we meet our goals or not? Did you get what you needed? Did I do what I said I would? Does my walk match my talk?

In short, for me, the most interesting part of feedback is not whether what I do was useful or whether people liked it, but finding out what people came away with. Whenever I ask that, I always hear something  I didn’t expect. Try it. You’ll be surprised.

7 Responses so far.

  1. Thanks Julie, I enjoyed readin this… What have I come away with? Your writing inspired me in thinking about the feedback processes we are trying to build into a new therapeutic service for Looked After and Adopted children. I am thinking that feedback is an interaction and not a one way street. We want feedback from young people who use and experience the services. The goal seems to be to make the services as relevant and alive as possible to people who use them. How will this change the service. What does it become if we are in a true interaction with the feedback?

    • juliediamond says:

      Thanks Mark. I would love to hear the process you come up, and I’m sure the readers here would, as well. There’s definitely a high dream about what feedback could be… and then there’s reality! Let us know what you discover along the way.

  2. Yelena says:

    Deep topic… and What did I come away with? I think your writing on feedback has got me thinking more deeply about the entire feedback process, both in work situations and more personal family-based situations. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while and drawing on your ideas to inspire and develop my own research about understanding how to relate to and organise ‘feedback’ in a way thats more useful to me.
    nice gift to us all,

  3. Mary Shaffer says:

    Wow! Now that I’m putting myself out there and doind some parenting classes, I’ll be honest – feedback scares the SHIT out of me! Partly, because I know it’s probably right or true, but also because I’m not sure how to apply it or integrate it. I almost wish I could have someone who’s experienced with teaching come and attend the talk, write down their feedback and then look over the feedback forms and really help me. I want feedback help me to grow, but it’s true, I get defensive. One of the defenses is something like, “well, that’s their style, so of course this isn’t going to “land” for them where I want it too.” It’s a style or value conflict. Which may or may not be true. I think the other part that fits in with feedback, is can I tolerate that not everyone is going to like me, period!
    Some important grapplings here.

    • juliediamond says:

      Mary, you bring up a good point. Sometimes it’s really helpful to get coached to make sense of feedback. As you point out, we get defensive, especially if it’s something that we’re still developing. and someone can help mediate the relationship between you, the feedback, the critics, and the learning.

      And of course, there are different styles, different needs that people come with. Not everything works for everyone. But that can be a rationalization, too, I’ve discovered. It depends. For me, I go back to my goal and purpose: why am I doing it? And is it important for me to be able to address different styles or not? Or to what degree?

      Good food for thought!

  4. Mary Shaffer says:

    Hey Julie,
    I thought of something that would be interesting to see how you think about, as a topic. Poverty. I encountered a parent at the school where I work and we had a very intimate conversation about who she is, where she has come from, how much she has changed in reaction to that, but how it is so much of what she knows. She was given the opportunity to sit at an “Open Table” an organziation that I believe is nation wide that tries and serves people who want to move out of poverty. Really, she was in contemplation. And really, it showed me something in myself, and in our culture that I feel so niave about. I don’t even know where to start, to deepen in my understanding and sensitivity. To learn where my blind spots are. But I know enough to know, that I must sound much more “middle class” in that way.
    Your thoughts in blog form would be most welcome <3

Leave a Reply