How I learned about Feedback

What is feedback anyway? I looked it up and found this to be rather descriptive, accurate and short.

“The return of information about the result of a process or activity” – The Free Dictionary, April 2009

Early fall 2007 I participated in a workshop Esther Derby and Diana Larsen held.

It’s called ‘Secrets Of Agile Teamwork’ and is by the way an excellent workshop, which I can highly recommend. One of the things that really stuck from those three days was the discussions, the information and the exercises we did about feedback. Partly because the exercises felt rather uncomfortable at times and partly because it changed my perspective on feedback.

Providing feedback

I remember one part of the workshop in particular where we were supposed to deliver and receive feedback from a script. We were reading from a piece of paper. In spite of this I felt totally out of my comfort zone. Later when we discussed this I was told that the discomfort will pass. You won’t feel as awkward delivering feedback when you get to practice it. It will be much easier. You just need some practice on handling feedback.

After the workshop me and a colleague decided that we would start giving each other a lot more feedback. We decided that we needed to practice both giving and getting feedback. Little did I know it would also improve my behavior and effectiveness. My colleague and I agreed we could ask for, and give each other feedback on basically anything at any time. After a talk, a meeting or about something that just popped into our heads.

We started off and at first we had conversations that went pretty much like this.
– ‘So, how did you think the presentation went!’
– ‘It was good.’
– ‘Thank you … (10 sec pause) … wait, what do you mean with good?’
– ‘Well, you delivered the message and you quite connected with the audience’
– ‘Great, thank you’
A few months later, this piece was added
– ‘So, what would you like me to do different the next time’
– ‘Well, for instance, when you write at the whiteboard, I have a hard time hearing what you say’
– ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll keep that in mind …’

We fumbled a bit, forgot to ask for details and just ’sucked up the compliments’ at first. After a few months it started to feel more natural. We used more open ended questions like; ‘How can I connect better with the audience’. We encouraged each other and kept regularly giving each other feedback and asked for it. Now it comes more naturally.

Getting feedback

Just like providing feedback, receiving feedback is an art in itself. I have noticed that I can get more out of the feedback if I help the one giving it to me. Instead of just sucking it up, and feeling good from comments like ‘Good job’ or ‘Keep it up’. Keep what up? What was good?
When someone says something like that to me, I try to get them to be more specific. Consider the following:

– ‘Good job, Ola’
– ‘Thank you!

This can give you a warm fuzzy feeling in your belly for a minute or two. And it won’t probably make that much difference to you after that. Instead I try to get some more information out of the feedback, by asking clarifying and specifying questions. By doing that I can extract information that’s more valuable to me.

Let’s see how:

– ‘Ola, great work. Keep it up!’
– ‘Thank you, what was great about it’
– ‘Huh?!’
– ‘I mean, what made it valuable to you?’
– ‘Oh, errr … Well. When you committed those changes to the code I had a much easier time.’
– ‘Cool, how do you mean easier?’
– ‘I didn’t have to merge any code at all. Because I had the latest changes already.’
– ‘So, if I commit more often, you won’t have to bother about difficult merges?’
– ‘Yeah, exactly …’
– ‘Then I’ll keep committing as often as I can’
– ‘Thanks, that will help a lot in the future as well’

When I discovered I could get more than a thank you out of feedback I really started to improve. I noticed how I could improve the way I worked, how I interacted with others. This made me not only feel good, it has made me more effective too.

Giving feedback

My biggest challenge when giving feedback so far is when I want someone to change their behavior. When I want to tell someone I want them to behave differently in certain situations. This is still difficult for me. Since I find it really really hard to be objective and only present data.
Lets say I want someone to show up for meetings at a specific time:
– ‘Ken, when you are late to our team meetings you disrupt the rhythm of the meeting. You make a lot of noise when entering the room, going round the table bumping into people, pull out your chair and pull out your laptop from your bag. This is disturbing’

In this short example we can find quite a few interpretations. Ken might not feel that he is late, he might not think he bumps into people and he is certainly not making ‘a lot of noise’. All of this is in fact my own view of the situation. Very often, I color the situation and unintentionally let that creep into my wording.
My favorite way of avoiding this is trying not to use judgment words like ‘Best’, ‘Worst’, ‘Fastest’ etc. I also try to skip exaggerations. Like ‘You always …’, ‘I have never …’.

I once heard a parent correcting a child at one time, half jokingly half serious.
‘For the millionth time, stop exaggerating’

Now I use that phrase to remind myself of sticking to using ‘data’.

Framework for feedback

Esther Derby and Diana Larsen introduced me to a ‘Framework For Giving Feedback’. It looks like this.
* Create an opening
* Describe the behavior or results
* State the impact
* Make a request
I find this framework very easy to use and powerful. So, when I’m about to give feedback in tough or new situations I try to run through the scenario in my head, creating an imaginary outcome of the conversation. This has helped me several times. Lets look at the ‘meeting issue’ again.
If I want Ken to change I’d wait until after the meeting and then I would say something like this:
– ‘Ken, do you have a minute’
– ‘Yeah, sure’
– ‘When you came into our meeting three minutes past five I lost my focus …’
– ‘Ok …’
– ‘… yes, because you went around the table and our colleagues had to move their chairs to be able to let you pass. And when you reached for your computer inside your bag I couldn’t hear Matt talking to me’
– ‘Ok …’
– ‘So, could you please come to the team meetings before they start or join them during the first break. That will make it easier for me to keep my focus on the meeting’

I have been [really] practicing giving and getting feedback since early fall 2007 and I must say it do come more natural now. At first it was very awkward even asking for very trivial feedback. For instance on how a meeting went that I facilitated. Or on how I gave a presentation.
My biggest hurdle was asking for feedback. Not the actual question or phrasing, that was easy enough. No, it was the courage I had to muster, before asking. Because I thought all feedback was negative. At least my experiences indicated that, like back in school.
– ‘Ola, stop talking, you’re disturbing the whole class’
Ouch, painful memories. Instant feedback though.

I might have been disturbing. I might not have been, at least not from my point of view. Maybe I just wanted to share something I thought was relevant at the moment to my friend that was sitting next to me.

How about this then:

– ‘Honey, I’d like you to clean up after yourself!’
What does ‘clean up mean’? It doesn’t sound like feedback either more like an order. But I thought that was [good] feedback 3 years ago. It was pretty immediate and very precise. At least I thought so.
The fun thing about this is that I can now look back on situations, where I thought I was delivering feedback in a rather good way, and more or less laugh. Because I can now see how ineffective it was. In two years from now, I want to be able look back at situations that I’m in today and laugh. That probably means I’m still learning.


By Ola Ellnestam

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