Too often we use feedback as a hidden way of making requests or getting what we want from others and, in the world of organisations in particular, it’s got us into deep water.
Feedback is when we speak with someone in a way that shows them what they can’t readily see about themselves. It’s valuable in all of our learning because we don’t become skilful at self-correcting until we get to know ourselves from multiple perspectives.
Giving feedback that is clear, coherent, grounded and which serves everybody’s learning is quite a skill. It takes the capacity to describe phenomena accurately in language and to take into account the intentions and the world of the person to whom it is said. It also requires the speaker to understand timing and mood – even the most accurate feedback can be impossible to hear if brought at the wrong moment or in an accusatory or wounding way.
Requests are different. They are a way of speaking with another person in order to bring about an outcome that we wish for by way of their participation or support.
Making powerful requests requires that we are clear about what we want to have happen, and the ability and capacity of the person we’re asking to contribute to it. It takes an existing relationship of sufficient trust and commitment in order for the request to be meaningful.
All too often we give feedback not because we want to help someone else learn but because we want something from them. But a request disguised as feedback combines the worst of both. The feedback is difficult to hear because it’s not oriented towards the other person’s learning. And the request is difficult to respond to with sincerity because it’s not clearly a request – the listener can’t easily determine what’s being asked for nor the conditions under which the requestor will be satisfied.
Clumsy feedback when you want someone to do something easily results in confusion, hurt, and resentment. A skilful and thoughtfully made request, on the other hand, invites the other person into a conversation and gives them the dignity of a sincere ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response to what you’re asking.
So let’s stop saying ‘You’re not pulling your weight’ when we really mean ‘Please can you give more attention to the project that’s most important to me?’. And let’s stop trying to get what we want without the courage to directly ask for it.