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Feedback Better Be A Two-Way Street

2021-10-02 — Michael Haupt

We're using feedback at Babbel - it's a power tool to improve and reinforce, with special regard to individual behaviour and relationships. But is it enough?

There's positive and negative feedback. For the latter, some like to use "constructive", and that's a misnomer used out of fear of using bad-sounding words: positive feedback should also be constructive, after all. If you want to avoid using adjectives, use "praise" and "criticism" instead, as long as you stay constructive in either case.

The process for giving feedback is to share your observations, the impact it had on you, and maybe what you'd like to improve or be amplified. It's important to stick to observable behaviour no matter what, because that's literally the only thing you can know for sure: what you observe and what impact it had on you. You typically know very little about the other's motivations and values, so you should refrain from making assumptions and judgments - don't interpret, observe.

It's a power tool because it allows to share, in a safe way, what things should change, and what things should be reinforced. Good things can come from it if it's used well. However, I think there's a problem with feedback in this pure form.

Quite bluntly, feedback's a one-way street, especially when it comes to negative feedback ("criticism"). When I give such feedback, I share my point of view, my issues with someone else's behaviour, and my desire for change. I give the receiver of the feedback a chance to build some empathy with me, to understand me. It's all about me me me - in this framework, I don't get to building empathy with the other, I don't get to understand what made them behave the way they did. Instead, I put my expectations in the other on a pedestal: Here's my feedback, now take it and act accordingly.

Babbel's company purpose is "creating mutual understanding through language". The emphasis is mine - can you see why? Feedback as used above is, as mentioned, a one-way street. I want all the empathy but I don't give any. I expect all the understanding but the framework doesn't expect me to understand anything. The understanding is not mutual.

It's easy to jump to conclusions and make rash judgments, and to give feedback in correct form but from a perspective of a judgment already made. I firmly believe that very few of us humans walk the Earth with the intent to be a nuisance. Perhaps the other did that annoying thing because they're lacking a crucial bit of information. Perhaps that's a piece of information I can give them. How would I know without asking?

I think that a very simple tweak to the feedback framework will suffice, and it won't take any of the value away from feedback. It's as easy as adding a little bit of inquiry to the playbook: first, you share your observation; second, you describe the impact it had on you; third, you express your desire for change or reinforcement; fourth, you inquire about what made the other act in the way you observed. This last extra step opens up a conversation, instead of stopping right there. The inquiry can be very simple. It's best to avoid the blunt "why" because that can sound a bit confrontative, but there are better options: "what made you ..." goes directly to the other's motivations, "to what end did you ..." asks for utility and reason, for example.

The effect of this little tweak should be positive. It changes the feedback situation to a two-way street, to a situation where mutual understanding and empathy can be built. It's how we should show up.

Tags: work