On interpersonal feedback

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There is no right and wrong

Many people are afraid of feedback. “Can I give you some feedback?” is typically followed by criticism, and we don’t do well with criticism. When we face criticism, the most typical reaction is to shut down, get reactive, defensive or withdraw. If you want your feedback to be heard, criticism is not going to be effective. Your feedback is not going to have an impact that way.  

We try to avoid receiving feedback not (only) because it is negative but because criticism locks us into a binary system of right and wrong. Labeling someone or something, no matter whether negative or positive, is always uncomfortable. How can positive labeling be uncomfortable? Let me share what comes to my mind first: “you’re such a good girl” already sounded uncomfortable when I was a child. It would then, and still would, trigger all kinds of reactions in me: who are you to judge that? What do you really know about me? Why are you telling me that? Labeling puts us into a box and all we want is get out of that box. 

Non-violent communication teaches that everything people do they do to meet needs. We all have needs, met and unmet, in every moment of our lives. By that we don’t only mean food and shelter. We mean the need for connection, for belonging, for contribution, to be heard and seen, to matter. Harmony, cooperation. Although all human beings can relate to all those needs, the priority those needs have for someone will vary from moment to moment. If generally, you’d say you are not someone for whom harmony is important, a disagreement with a loved one might let that need rank higher among your universal needs for that situation. 

 

What we choose to do to meet those needs, is referred to as strategy. Strategies are not good or bad. But some are more effective than others, and that depends on individuals and context. Going to the movies for some is an effective way of meeting their need for connection, for some it is not and they would choose to do something else to meet their need for connection. When we are not aware of our needs behind our strategies, it is very easy to get side-tracked into astonishingly ineffective strategies. Have you ever steamed out of a room, upset because what you really needed was connection? Leaving the room does not seem to be an effective strategy to get connection!

Before we go back to feedback and criticism, let us have a quick look at feelings. We all walk around having needs with changing priorities/needs/values. What happens if one of our needs (that was important in that moment) is not being met, for instance our need for connection? We might get sad. Or mad. Unmet needs will trigger uncomfortable feelings. On the flipside, when an important need is met, we might feel happy. When you get an unexpected phone call from a friend in a moment where connection was what you were longing, you will probably feel happy or excited. In that way, feelings are pointers to met or unmet needs. 

Messages, needs and feelings

It is the basic, and revolutionary, insight from non-violent communication (NVC) that in a world based on people using strategies to meet universal needs, there is no right and wrong. There are just people trying to meet needs. We can disagree on the level of strategies, on how we want to meet our needs. Movies or dinner out, what works for your need for connection, what works for mine? But who can argue with the need for connection? All humans share this need. And that is true for every universal need. Our basic outfit of universal needs is probably roughly the same. On strategy-level, there is a lot of variation. The same need can be met by different strategy. A strategy can meet several needs at once, and there is no 1:1 relation between needs and strategies. For instance, going to the movies might need my need for connection, or stimulation, or both, or something else. 

Exposure to NVC has impacted many lives very deeply and we urge every reader to learn more about it. If these are new concepts for you (and even they are not), you are very likely to have missed a detail in the above paragraph: when people hear “there is no right and wrong”, it is easier to accept that no one is ever wrong. However, if we deeply immerse into NVC, there is no wrong AND right. We have to leave the entire binary system behind and embrace that we all have our own angle on reality. 

Once this is understood, there are two options of how to relate to others: (a) only talk about what we can observe more or less directly (i.e. stay away from interpretations) or (b) become aware that we are making assumptions. Since (a) by itself is not very realistic, we try to combine both options. What does that mean for giving feedback?

First, you have to leave every thought behind that you are right and the other person is wrong (or right). You can talk about your observations and talk about your assumptions or judgements as such. Since we live in a society that is still very much engrained in a binary system of right and wrong, it is all too easy for your conversation partner to forget that you are aware that you are making assumptions. That does not mean you cannot share them. In talking, you have to be extremely transparent and clear about the fact that you are sharing your own interpretation, no absolute truth. Just saying “oh, I know that was just my assumption” is not enough, you have to be up front with it. Below will be some useful phrases that make it clear that all we can possibly share is our own perception and interpretation, no absolute truth. Keep in mind that although howwe say things matters, just saying the words will not be enough. Only when it is truly felt, it will be genuine and effective. People have a very fine radar and can sense judgement underneath anything you say, no matter how elaborate your words might be. 

In sharing your observations and interpretations, you are sharing what the impact of someone’s actions or words is on you. You can share feelings, or you can share what needs are met or not met for you. 

One more caveat before we jump into how to give feedback: no one and nothing can directly cause your feelings. “You make me angry” is just not an accurate description of what is going on, considering the steps between a trigger and a feeling. First of all, we react to what we hear, not to what has been said or done. It is safe to assume that everything we see and hear is at least slightly tainted because we inadvertently add a layer of interpretation. We can make an effort to talk about observations but we will make assumptions. What is more relevant in this context is what happens after we receive (and interpret) a message. We talked about the concept that everything we do or don’t do is a strategy to meeting needs. That means, when encountering a message, we will evaluate: does this meet my needs that are salient in this very moment? Unmet and met needs will then trigger feelings. Again: not other people’s actions trigger feelings but our own met or unmet needs. 

Let us look at one example. Let us say I see my partner drop a towel on the bathroom floor. I might get annoyed because he dropped it. Did he cause my anger? Let us look at it from a needs perspective. What needs of mine will be met or unmet? It could be my needs for beauty and order that is not met. It could be that I am worried about the damp towel getting moldy and I want to use my resources wisely without wasting things (behind that could be the desire to have peace of mind financially, or environmental concerns or whatever else). I might have had a conversation about towels on the floor with my partner in the past, and we both agreed to hang them up. In that case, I could see my need for cooperation, mutual understanding, love or respect as not met. I might feel sad or upset. Laying it all out like this, it might be easier to understand that it is not my partner’s behavior that makes me sad or upset. My feelings are a reaction to how my needs are met. There is some impact of my partner’s actions on how my needs are met but there is no direct cause-effect relationship. 

How can you address something that upsets you? By referring to your needs. Instead of saying “you make me upset when you leave the towel on the floor”, saying something like “When I see the towel on the floor, I am worried that it might get moldy, and I don’t like wasting things we own” is more adequate to what happened.  If you compare those two statements, notice how the second one does not contain the word “you”. When you hear people talking about “I”-statements, that’s what is referred to. (However, it is very easy to tweak an “I”-statement, for instance in “I don’t like how you make me upset”. We cannot just change the words – or the first word in a sentence. We have to change the mindset.)

What you do when you talk about your needs that are met or unmet is you talk about the impact something has on you and how your needs are met. Since your feelings and your needs are saying something about you instead of putting the other person on the spot, this is information that is very easy to hear. 

Learning through feedback

How does change come about if everyone “just” talks about their own experience? Change comes in the shape of requests. A request has the form of “would you be willing to…”, and the answer can be yes or no. For any request, we need to reveal what need of ours would be met with the other person’s help. Since we can all relate to universal needs (because we all have them), often the other person will be very willing to support you in meeting your need.  

When I am friends with someone, I want to hear when their need for connection is not met and they feel lonely. Note that it is not my fault when they are lonely. That would be going back to right/wrong thinking. (For instance in demands or blame of the “why don’t you ever call me first” type.) Everyone’s needs are their own, and the responsibility to meet them is no one’s but theirs. They have a need for connection, and there are many strategies to meet that need. One of the strategies would be to call me and talk. Another strategy would be for them to look at old pictures. Or to spend time on social media, go out to dance, call some other friend or call their sister. Only they can pick and choose what might work for them in that moment, for I am not responsible for their met needs.  

Let’s say my friend calls me. I don’t like talking on the phone. Talking on the phone for me simply does not work as a strategy to meet my need for connection. Maybe it is because my hearing is not good, so listening without visual cues is straining and not relaxing. I am also concerned that my kids in the house might hear what I am saying which keeps me from speaking freely. When I cannot relax and have to monitor what I say, connection is hard to get. What works really well for me is texting.  So I do not answer the phone but I text back. I want to maintain connection, and texts can be sent quietly without anyone overhearing our conversation, so this really works for me. My friend, however, prefers talking on the phone. She might get upset. Did I makeher upset? No. Her being upset is her reaction to her own need for connection not being met through a strategy that works for her for meeting her need. My texting instead of answering her phone call is my way of meeting my need for connection, relaxation and privacy. So, what can we do? Are we doomed to stay in a disconnected place, neither of us really getting what we want? This is where feedback comes in. You might notice that it took a long time to talk about feedback, which is just because so many assumptions we typically have about actions and feelings ignore the most important factor: our needs.

What can we do to meet our needs more effectively? We can give feedback. The first step is to share your experience. 

Again, notice how both are able to share their experience without labeling the other person. They are just talking about their own experience. Now they both have some relevant information. Both know what is going on for the other person and why they act the way they do. Once that first step of mutual understanding is complete, the path is open to a shared decision on what to do. Talk on the phone later when kids are in bed? Go with texting, or a more unilateral phone call (for privacy) with headphones? We are rarely short on ideas once we have clarity. A whole set of options opens up when we collaborate with fully shared information. The more information we have, the more we are in choice about what strategy works best in that moment. 

Feedback is data, that is all. It is sometimes described as something very neutral as in steering a bike: my eyes and sense of balance perceive cues that the horizon might be tipping. I steer to make up for it. I see that the road makes a curve. I steer to stay on the road. There is a branch on the ground? Important information. The branch on the ground is not there to upset me. It just is. And I will find my way around it. The more information I have, and the more we put our minds together, the more easily I can ride to my destination without getting hurt. 

Your organization can use all relevant data to steer itself, and your relationship can use all relevant data to grow together. “How is this working for you” is a question that helps us get to a place of growth.

Feedback is neither negative or positive. It is just information. What works for you, what works for me? The two key points to keep in mind:

  • Separate out needs and strategies. Do not judge actions as bad or good. Instead embrace the underlying need and talk about effectiveness of strategies in meeting needs.
  • Giving feedback serves to increase the level of information. The more is mutually known, the better we can collaborate. 

 

Feedback fosters connection

Now that we know how to look at feedback as neutral information, there is more. Feedback can be a way to foster connection. How?

There are two ways how that is the case that I see. First, if it is mutually acknowledged that the more information we have, the more easily and successfully we can collaborate, then giving someone feedback is providing them with more information. (Whether or not that information is relevant to them, that is not in our hands.) Why would I not be grateful for more information that makes my journey smoother? Giving feedback is a way to contribute to your fellow traveler’s well-being. Think back to the steering of a bike: someone’s feedback is information that there is a car from the left and a patch of black ice.

Second, if someone shares how my behavior has an impact on them, this is proof that we are connected and interdependent. What I do matters to someone else, and what they do matters to me.The more I get to learn about what is important to others, the more closely we can be connected. Giving or receiving feedback is a strategy that can meet many universal needs: the needs for connection, learning, shared reality, to matter, to contribute, stimulation, to be seen, consideration, discovery, growth… look at a list of universal needs, and feedback can be a good strategy for almost all of them! 

The goal is to come to a place where we can welcome any feedback (ideally even ineffective feedback) as data. That is not always easy. We have our own stories going on and get caught up in our own judgements. But as a goal, wouldn’t it be a peaceful place to be in if we were able to gracefully take in all the feedback and to be deeply grateful for it? 

Summary: successful feedback

Constructive feedback is feedback that

  • shares information you can access
  • can be heard
  • fosters connection

What data do you have access to? You do not have access to absolute truth, thus do not present what you say as absolute truth. What you dohave access to is what you can observe, what you interpret or project (both needs to be marked as such) and what the impact is on you. Observations are only attempts at being a “video camera”. No matter how skilled we are at observing and reporting, it is still subjective and therefore more of an experience than an observation. Whatever we call it, it is data that the other person can work with! 

Feedback that can be heard is feedback that is free of blame. Any added layer of blame will cover up the data you want to be known. Making sure that the other person is in a good enough place to receive the feedback is part of that as well. An easy way to do that is to ask

  • “I am sitting on some judgement here. Are you open to hearing it?”
  • “I have been observing something. I might be mistaken but I thought maybe it might help you to hear what I have been thinking. Do you want to hear it?”

Feedback fosters connection when it is aimed to share information instead of distancing us from each other. A key ingredient to connecting feedback is curiosity. How did what I said land on you? What is important to you? What is there for me to learn?

Checklist for successful feedback:

  • Check if the person is open to hearing the feedback 
  • Express your feedback using
    • Your observations
    • Your interpretations(marked as such)
    • a description of how well your needs are (un)met
  • Be curious about the other person’s thoughts, feelings and needs as they arise. 

 

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