The Art of Conscious Feedback
“Don’t care what anyone thinks about you!”
Have you heard advice like that? I have, and I think it is an absurd notion. After all, we are social beings. We are wired to care what others think of us.
However, “Care only about what others think about you!” is an equally absurd notion.
So, is there a middle ground? Absolutely.
There is a dynamic tension between the importance of the individual and the importance of the social group in every family, organization, and culture.
For example, our culture leans heavily towards the importance of individuality and individual freedom (at least in theory). Other cultures lean heavily towards conforming to group norms. Communist China comes to mind.
When we place extreme emphasis on not caring what others think of us or our behavior, we are at risk of becoming anti-social. After all, group norms are the glue that holds us together. When someone goes out of their way to reject the group’s values and takes an extreme position, both sides suffer.
An example of this might be highly rebellious adolescents that reject their parent’s values. Being anti-something doesn’t necessarily mean that we are pro- something.
On the other hand, extreme insistence on conforming to group norms is equally harmful. We see this when religions, cults, or governments take extreme measures to exert authority over others in order to suppress individual expression.
The more conscious we are, the more we see that respecting our individuality and the group are not mutually exclusive. We are free to embrace the importance of both simultaneously.
Giving and receiving conscious feedback is a mechanism that helps us maintain healthy relationships and social bonds. Unconsciously giving and receiving feedback, on the other hand, is often destructive to relationships and social bonds. In fact, this is often how feuds, and even wars are started.
How to Give Conscious Feedback
First things first: determine whether giving conscious feedback is warranted. Is it useful?
Ask yourself a few questions first:
Did the person ask for your feedback?
Unsolicited advice is rarely welcome. If the person didn’t ask, they are less likely to be open to your feedback. But there are ways to consciously give unsolicited feedback.
For example, say a woman invites her housemate to attend a holiday party. As they are getting ready to leave for the party, the woman sees that her housemate is dressed to the nines. The woman realizes that she didn’t tell her housemate that the party is very casual. She can say to her housemate, “I forgot to tell you the party is informal.”
Do you see that the feedback is not directed at the housemate? She is offering information that she thinks the housemate might find helpful.
If instead the woman said, “You’re not going to wear that are you?!!” She is making it about the housemate. Her comment is neither kind nor helpful.
Another way to consciously offer unsolicited feedback is to simply ask. “I have an idea; do you want to hear it?”
Are you in a role to give feedback?
Are you a manager or employer giving feedback to an employee? Or are you a professional or expert with a credible opinion that the person is seeking?
For example, if you are an English professor reading a student’s essay, you are in a role to give feedback. Even so, how you give feedback makes a big difference in how useful it is to your student.
“This is drivel” or “I love this” are equally unhelpful pieces of feedback. A professor’s role is to help guide and teach the student.
In contrast, “I had difficulty following your train of thought. You might want to think about what central point you are trying to make and avoid going off on tangents.” or “As a reader, I felt emotionally engaged and appreciated your deep understanding of the subject.” Both of these comments are useful and kind. They are specific and indicate a clear desire to help the student improve their writing skills.
What is your motive for giving feedback?
When we pause to consider our motive for giving feedback, we give ourselves time to correct course.
What is our intended goal? Is it to be helpful, kind, or constructive? Or is it to criticize, judge, retaliate, or control? These questions can stop a lot of feedback in its tracks when we realize our intended feedback is not loving or useful.
We might want to identify whether the feedback is for the benefit of the relationship, the other person and/or yourself? By the way, any of these are legitimate reasons to give feedback.
If we consciously look at our thoughts and motivations for giving feedback, we can learn a lot about ourselves. We might see how often we unnecessarily put our nose in another person’s business.
For example, let’s say you don’t like someone’s taste in decorating. In most cases, there is no reason to comment about it one way or the other. It’s not our business. However, if you plan to rent an office suite with this person, then it is your business.
“Have you noticed that you and I have different tastes in decorating? I’m wondering how we can come to a consensus on decorating the office suite?” Notice that this conscious feedback isn’t critical, it is observational. It is in the form of a question and shows openness and curiosity.
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