The gift of feedback

“Are you doing your best?” asked double Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell  of TV presenter Ben Fogle, in the early stages of their transatlantic row in December 2005. As feedback goes, this is at the unhelpfully brutal end of the scale. It provoked a silent standoff lasting several days. That’s an achievement in itself on a boat less than the length of your car.

Feedback is like a comprehensive health MOT: we all acknowledge the importance of it, yet somehow we never get round to it.

What a pity. Because a healthy relationship with feedback, both giving and receiving, serves us in being more productive, effective, enjoyable people to be around. We become attuned to our behaviour and as a result, more empathetic.

According to Stone and Heen, in their definitive text ‘Thanks for the Feedback’, we are incapable of seeing how our behaviour lands with those around us. We judge the impact by our intention. It’s a form of blindness, hence the term blind spot, which can be addressed by seeking out the perspective of others in a constructive way.

The key is to be crystal clear about the intent of the feedback. For example, a tennis coach might say to a client: “Because I want you to have a better backhand, can I suggest you move your elbow up 6 inches on contact?” The intention is overt and wholesome. The feedback is likely to be well received.

As feedback seekers, we can also be overt about the intent. For example, a feedback request might go like this; “I am working on how I come across more clearly in group meetings, what do you see me doing that gets in my way?”

Stone and Heen recommend gentle, clarifying language such as “let me tell you what I mean and you see if it makes sense”. This creates an atmosphere of mutual exploration rather than a torrent of testiness. The so-called FU reaction. 

Seek out people who are straightforward and honest. The type of person who will tell you that you are having a bad hair day. Honest feedback is so much more valuable than fluffy reassurance from someone who always sees you in your best light e.g. your Mum. Mums are wonderful at many things, but most are not good at honest feedback. 

Precise, well-intentioned feedback is a game changer.

Back in the Atlantic, I suspect James would have had a better outcome if he had tried: 

“Ben, because I want you and I to get to Antigua as quickly and safely as possible, can I make some suggestions around your rowing technique? Let me show you what I mean and you can tell me if it makes sense…”’

Unfortunately, it took a freak wave to break the standoff.

In the end, feedback is a gift you can decide to accept or bestow. Either way, don’t wait for your metaphorical freak wave to start a relationship with it. 

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