About a decade ago, a friend was a featured guest on a television program. He told me that he got excellent reviews from friends who caught the segment. But, he noted, he wanted to hear my “expert” opinion, too.
Put yourself in his shoes, wiggle out of them, and then try mine on for size. What was really going on here? Did he sincerely want my opinion? Or did he want me to say how great he did? Think about a time you’ve asked someone to give you feedback, critique your work, or evaluate your performance.
Whether it was for a blockbuster deal or the choice of a shower curtain, were you truly seeking input? Or were you angling for affirmation? Did you yearn for constructive feedback, or glowing adulation?
In all honesty, I usually hope that the constructive feedback includes heavy doses of glowing adulation. But I just don’t seem to learn nearly as much when the focus is on stroking my ego. On those occasions when I can keep my insecure, fragile ego in check long enough, I am able to take the constructive feedback to heart and improve.
Isn’t it such a sham when you see some out-of-touch insecure soul surrounded by a phalanx of “yes” men too timid or blinded by their own self-interest to speak the truth? A classic case in point is The Emperor’s New Clothes, the children’s tale (that applies equally to adults) of an emperor hoodwinked into believing he has glorious clothes when he really has nothing on at all.
Make no doubt—on an emotional level, it’s wonderful to be appreciated. But when it comes to striving for personal excellence in any endeavor, we must be open to honest feedback. Olympic champions are not built through superficial “attaboy” and “attagirl” sentiment.
To grow in any endeavor, we need to make constant correction. And that inherently means being corrected. Sometimes, it’s our internal voice that recognizes an adjustment is necessary. Often, however, success hinges on our willingness to hear others’ voices.
When you are faced with a situation where someone seeks your input, here are three tips on how to get your point across with sensitivity and effect:
I. Practice the “Sandwich” Approach
Feedback is especially beneficial when it is part of a “sandwich,” in which an individual begins with praise, follows with the healthy criticism, and then wraps up on a final note of praise.
Don’t be too mechanical about this. Simply keep in mind that another’s mind is more fertile for planting your point when you don’t just plow ahead like a bulldozer.
II. Praise in Public, Criticize in Private
This one ought to be old news to you, particularly if you have ever endured criticism in front of your peers. Praising in public and criticizing in private improves morale and commands respect. Its focus is on improvement, not punishment. Applying this principle reflects disciplined restraint and a long-term outlook on future results, not dwelling on past mistakes.
III. Salt Your Comments
Preface the heart of your feedback with an attention-getting comment. Here are a few samples that will prepare someone not only to hear, but also to take to heart what you have to share:
“If I saw a way to help you improve, would you want me to tell you as clearly and candidly as possible?”
“There’s something about your work that I think could be improved on. Is this a good time to share it?”
On the other side of the equation, we need to be genuinely open to feedback.
Too often, we seek to fight input that is less than gushing. Our ego bruised and battered, we may lash out at those with the candor to tell it as they see it. “Nobody else has told me that” is one classic defensive reply. Then there’s the sarcastic barb, “Well, is there anything you did like about it?”
Comments like these are a sure-fire way to discourage honest feedback in the future. And it’s a breeding ground for the development of blind spots in your character and performance. Pretty soon, folks will just nod their heads in patronizing agreement as you seek the empty warmth of blanket approval. Welcome to The Emperor’s New Clothes Club.
Now, back to my friend and his seeking my “expert” opinion:
There were others around when he showed the videotape, so I had nothing but praise and a mild piece of cautionary feedback that he might have made more eye contact with his co-host.
Later, in private, I was more pointed in my comments. Among other things, it was apparent that he held the co-host in disdain. She came across as uncomfortable, and he made no attempt to put her at ease. For the entire show, he fixed his gaze on the camera and barely glanced at her, even when she asked him questions.
He reacted defensively at first. “Is there anything you liked about it?” he asked. Eventually, he expressed appreciation and said that it was a testimony to our friendship that we could be so candid with each other. Next time he is in a similar situation, he said, he would keep my feedback in mind.
As for me, I hope he appreciates this column. But more importantly, I hope that I’ve given him the space to tell me if he doesn’t.