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Lots of feedback last week! Of course, feedback is continuous, whether we realise or not, there is some kind of feedback on everything we do. Which is great really - an endless source of opportunity to take responsibility for and be curious about your impact. What I’m referring to today though, is the kind of feedback you specifically request as part of a review.

In short, this process involves clients choosing 5 or 6 people that they believe will give them useful insights into the impact of their leadership, and asking them 5 or 6 questions. Most often, my clients embark on this around half way through a six session coaching contract, as this is a time when they have become more clear about what the most useful feedback they could ask for is, and have sessions remaining to work on it. That said, I have gathered feedback at the start of a coaching process as a support to shaping goals and that has been incredibly useful, as has sometimes gathering feedback towards the end of the process to support and challenge the client in what has been most useful to others in the changes they have made, and to prepare for continuing those.

Feedback is one of those topics that has a pretty exhaustive, not to mention exhausting, amount of information available, and also happens to be something I’m rather passionate about. Because if you don’t know, how can you change it?

I love doing this work. It reveals layers of useful information for my clients, and more often than not, also leads to useful awareness for those giving the feedback around their own communication of what is working and what isn’t. The very process of giving feedback facilitates a conversation that often takes place before I have had a chance to pass the feedback on and then creates a whole new way of working on that issue and/or working relationship.

This feels like a moment to share five thoughts on feedback:

1. Attributable Feedback - Energy flows where thought goes

Rather than energy going on working out who said what, and energy then going into frustration at not being able to talk openly about who said what because the feedback has been anonymous, my preference is that feedback is attributable. I know there are many who make strong cases for anonymity and in my experience, albeit rarely, that can be useful. By far my preference is a process through which respondents share their feedback with me, and that is in turn passed on to the client.

This enables me as the coach, to ask for examples or dig a little deeper when I hear something that could be useful to my client.  

Respondents have the option of checking the written version of the feedback to ensure they are happy with how the feedback appears on paper (sometimes things feel different on paper than they did out loud) and that I have used their language and been accurate in my summary.

The process often begins a conversation that was necessary to continuing to improve a working relationship or to promote more useful ways of working. The fact that the feedback is attributable opens the door to that conversation and the energy around it can be taken forward. This isn’t always easy or comfortable, and that’s the point. The difficult stuff often goes unsaid. If when it finally is said, it is behind a closed door, it tends to increase the energy around the issue, without a useful valve to take the pressure off and enable steps forward.

2. Ask specific questions

I work with my clients to get really clear what the most useful questions are. Often, when someone asks for feedback it will be exactly that: “Could you give me some feedback?’ It’s often requested in a general way, and the feedback is general in response. That can be useful in terms of re-enforcing what you already know. It can be less useful in either not relating to the things you really want to work on, or in getting surprises that you’re not prepared for that then impact on the way you receive and respond to the feedback.

The more specific your question, the more useful your feedback is likely to be. If you are working with a coach, you can ask questions that will support you in moving towards the goals you have set, and also work with your coach on how you prepare yourself to hear the feedback. The goal is an approach to feedback that promotes curiosity rather than judgement.

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3. Keep the stuff that works!

When I’m working with a group on their Impact and they are giving each other feedback, I always draw their attention to the difference in the way they hear the feedback about what works (things like shrugging it off, paying it less attention, looking bashful and questioning whether it’s true) and the way they hear the feedback about what to work on, when invariably a pen and paper comes out, notes are taken and there is vigorous nodding in agreement and energy poured into what to get better at. the same often happens in individual feedback.

There is of course, great value in knowing what you need to get better at, and thinking about how to approach it.

My challenge to them, and to you, is to hear what works with same energy, attention and focus as what needs work.

They are both of value and importance. In fact, what works is even more useful, in that it is the solid ground that you build on. This reveals the strengths, sometimes ones you didn’t know you had, or that you dismiss as strengths because they are just who you are and how you do things. These strengths are what you bring to bear on the challenges and the ways you can improve, they are worthy of your attention, and of doing more of them. Here comes that favourite quote of mine again:

“It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
- Mohammed Ali

I have witnessed a number of leaders make far more progress than they thought possible by focussing on and learning from others feedback about what to do more of rather than what to change.

4. Compassion 

I learned from Roger Schwarz that compassion isn’t about being fluffy, or inappropriately soft as a leader. It’s about choosing to believe that we are all doing our best with what we have. That sometimes things are challenging and when we hold ourselves responsible, and accountable, and are working with positive intention, we can also be kind to ourselves about not getting it ‘right’ all the time, and not expecting that from others. If you want others to hear your feedback with the positive intention you have to support and challenge them to build and grow because you believe in their achievements and potential, you need to be willing to do the same for yourself. How can you expect others to hear it, if you won’t?

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5. An opportunity to go towards – choosing ‘courage over comfort’*

As I write this I’m reminded that all my work, with all my clients, involves going towards discomfort. It’s why when coaches talk about being privileged to do this work; we mean it. To walk alongside someone as they take an honest look at what they want to do better, or how they want to be better, and take full responsibility for how to get there is a privilege. It involves discomfort and it’s challenging. 

Feedback is an opportunity to go towards discomfort (including that of hearing what your strengths are and how valued you are if you’re not used to allowing yourself to truly hear that). As someone giving feedback, it’s an opportunity to go towards discomfort, as requested, and to offer the truth. Fear of offending, or of consequence is something I often hear from respondents, and there is great value in the work that can be done to support respondents in telling respectful, positively intended truth, having ensured that it is safe to do so.

As I so often do, I turn to Brene Brown* to say it better than me!

“Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind. 

Feeding people half-truths or bullshit to make them feel better (which is almost always about making ourselves feel more comfortable) is unkind.

Not getting clear with a colleague about your expectations because it feels too hard, yet holding them accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind.

Talking about people rather than to them is unkind.

…clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”

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