Have you ever wanted to start an important conversation with someone about something you experienced with them but have not known where or how to start? Have you asked them if you could give them “feedback” – or, even, “critical feedback”? Have you tried to shore up the importance of your message by referencing nameless, multiple others that you’ve talked to who feel exactly the same way you do?
Language matters. Approach matters. There are probably more bad ways into conversation than good ways. Wanting to offer “critical feedback” is one way that is not that helpful. Referencing nameless others you’ve talked to who feel the same way you do is another. It infers, “I wouldn’t even say anything except all these other people feel the same way I do.” As if your own experience is not sufficient unless it is backed up by others.
Just pause for a moment, really pause, and notice your own reaction imagining someone has said this to you: “Would you be open to critical feedback on my experience with that program? I have had multiple conversations with others and they all feel the same way.”
The word feedback activates the same area in your brain as if you have just been slapped. And, in this case, not just feedback, but critical feedback. Critical feedback implies the experience was not good. Right away, the recipient of this kind of question is on the defensive. It is an immediate response, possibly even an amygdala hijack. We have to train ourselves to be receptive to the word feedback, which is why there are so many articles and posts about how to give and receive feedback. So many of us have had negative experiences with the word, including some of us who have experienced others offering “feedback” simply as a way to criticize or attack.
Referencing unnamed others suggests you are naming yourself as a spokesperson for others. With a not-for-profit client I worked with awhile ago that was experiencing a significant shift in its governance and operational models, a member of the board indicated “everyone” he had talked to was not in favour of the changes. In the 1000+ National membership, he had talked to three or four people – hardly representative of the overall membership which 90+% voted in favour of the changes.
It takes courage to stand up for your own voice and offer your own experience and it is far more powerful than appointing yourself “spokesperson” for others. “I’ve had multiple conversations with others,” begs several questions. Did you approach them or did they approach you? What kinds of questions did you ask? Were you instigating a response? All immediate defensive postures.
As a recipient of this kind of approach, it takes discipline to step out of our own defensive responses when we do not yet even know what the other person wants to share with us, to be open to hearing, really hearing, what it is they want to share. And, this is even more difficult, though not impossible, if we have had prior experience with them that reinforces our first immediate response.
What language would be more helpful? “I’ve been reflecting on my experience and wonder if I could share a few thoughts with you?” “I have some questions about what happened during that experience. Would you be willing to have a conversation with me to help me understand it better?” “I’ve been left a bit confused by what happened. Would you be willing to have a conversation with me to explore my experience?”
Imagining different conversational openings, I keep coming back to: “I wonder if… “Would you be willing to…. “ as openers that evoke more curiosity and invitation than “Can I offer you critical feedback?” You can imagine some of your own.
Bottom line. Own your own experience and, before you ask, consider your language. How would you respond to the language you are choosing? And be honest with yourself because it is easy to rationalize our choice of words. What is the language you can choose that feels inviting into a conversation and exploration rather than sets the stage for defensive posture? Question your motives for the conversation. Do you really want a conversation or do you just want to state your own point of view or tell people what you think they did wrong?
Language matters. Pay attention to the language you choose and you will find more powerful ways into the conversations that matter to you.
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