Asking for difficult feedback: What happened when I stopped holding a mirror to others and held one to myself…

As a Psychologist, a big part of my life involves being honest with people.

I give tough feedback a lot. I work with teams to seek out the thing that no one wants to address and I sit by it with a picnic blanket and a torch light . I hope that for many people I give them space to accept what are difficult thoughts and know that there is little gained from their avoidance. 

Which is why it is not a proud moment for me to reflect lately that I’m not always very honest with myself.

I was inspired a few months ago by watching Jia Jiang’s Ted Talk and the wisdom that grew from exposinghimself to 100 days of rejection. Jiang found that beyond the firewall of shame and fear came a sense of freedom he couldn’t have imagined. Once he stopped trying to avoid rejection he achieved great things.

What’s this got to do with being honest with myself? Well I’ve been thinking a lot about feedback – specifically why people find it so hard to give. I’ve realised with increasing discomfort that I give feedback a lot more than I receive it. 

The last year or so I’ve been trying to make bolder decisions in my life. In fact I’ve been doing the equivalent of a bomby in the fountain at a cocktail party. The likelihood that some of my decisions agreed with the people around me was minimal, and yet for the most part people carried on their conversations and sipped uninterrupted from their champagne as if they were still dry.

If I’m honest I know some of my decisions had a negative impact on people. The words of a past mentor lurked unwelcomed in my mind:

“If one person calls you a donkey they’re an idiot. 
If 5 people call you a donkey buy yourself a saddle.” 

It wasn’t just one person in my life that didn’t give me feedback.
And maybe, just maybe, it was time to go shopping….

I realised with part affront and part self-doubt, that I could lament why people didn’t give me feedback as much as I liked, but maybe the truth was more accurately that something about me didn’t invite or encourage feedback. 

I set out to make myself more accountable and ask some of the biggest stakeholders in my life for feedback. You know how there are people you really need to think highly of you and hearing otherwise would be painful? Well I asked them to be painful. 

I asked 15 or so people over the space of a few weeks if they could think about it and give me some feedback about anything. The only criteria was that it should be either hard for them to say or probably hard for me to hear.

After a week or so the silence was deafening, except for a few pieces of negative feedback that resemble responses when people are asked about weaknesses in job interviews: “You work too hard” “You don’t take enough time for yourself.” I resisted the urge to let myself off the hook and gently asked again. Overwhelmingly people said that they didn’t enjoy the thought that it might be painful for me (except for one staff member who pointed out that I was their boss and they were still on probation:)). I sat with many of them again trying to figure out whether the discomfort belonged to me or to them. In truth, I’m not sure it matters. 

When an athlete wants to get stronger, he/she trains not to the doorstep of discomfort, they go past it. Strength comes from creating tiny tears in the muscle, knowing that the new cell generation that follows the tear will fuse with the old and make it stronger. Scar tissue does the same. A fisherman’s hands get stronger from the wear and tear of each year. The list goes on.

But when it comes to feedback – giving it or receiving it, most of us do whatever we can to avoid ours or others’ discomfort. I’m reminded all over again that when we have our hands in our pockets ready to pay a small toll fee, and we abort the mission as the conductor passes, we do us all a disservice.

I make mistakes sometimes – some of them significant. Asking for feedback the past few weeks has made that clear. But when I finished steeling myself for the mighty blow, it didn’t come. The discomfort rose, and when I didn’t run I felt stronger for it.

I want to get better and avoiding mine or your discomfort doesn’t give me the chance. Next time we avoid giving people feedback, or seek strategies for giving other people difficult feedback, maybe we should try asking for more difficult feedback of our own and see if that doesn’t change our culture faster.

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