Smite Not: Helpful Feedback About Hindering Behavior


As difficult as it may be for many of us to give or get feedback, let’s be thankful that we don’t live in Biblical times. Think about it: when God wanted to let His people know that He was unhappy with their behavior, He didn’t typically sit them down for a heart-to-heart. He didn’t share his observations about what was working and what wasn’t, and then request a change in performance to be observed over a period of time, and then re-evaluated. While some of His favorite folks (Moses, Jonah) got second chances to improve their conduct, many more were not as lucky.

Think fire. Think floods. Ouch.

While God asserted that He was caring, compassionate and patient – and I believe Him – at times His methods of giving feedback were often less so (in my humble, human, non-omniscient, non-omnipresent purview.)

But let me give God the benefit of the doubt: giving and getting feedback is hard, but critical to our personal and professional development. As Gina Imperato writes in her Fast Company article, How to Give Good Feedback, “Feedback matters. The only way for people to get better at what they do is for the people they work for to provide candid, timely performance evaluations.” But what makes it so tricky? Imperato contends, “Part of the problem with reviews is that human nature hasn't changed – few of us enjoy hearing about our shortcomings, and few of our bosses and colleagues look forward to describing them.”

Too often, feedback is delivered during an annual performance review, where the comments may come as a surprise because they haven’t been previously addressed as part of ongoing supervision meetings. These disclosures aren’t welcome revelations when they come too late – hearing that our boss or colleagues have long been frustrated, disappointed or even angered by our personal or professional behavior can be devastating.

Another challenge is that too many supervisors (or colleagues, parents, spouses and partners) have never had any formal training on how to deliver constructive feedback that the other person can hear – and can participate in. Giving feedback is a skill we are supposed to know but haven’t been taught, and perhaps we don’t even have models for what it’s supposed to sound like. So we feel our way through the process – making missteps and mistakes all along the way – leaving a bad taste lingering in the mouths, ears and souls of both people involved.

As someone who trains new and seasoned supervisors in both the corporate and non-profit sectors, I find that the unit on giving feedback is fraught with tons of feedback on what hasn’t worked well, and a sense of foreboding about what won’t work well in the future. And while the conversation eventually turns from what not to do to what we can do differently, we do spend the first part of the conversation addressing some common – but not commonly understood – elements to avoid.

While everyone has their own “oy’s” when it comes to giving feedback, here are my top two things to avoid (with more to come in my next article).

1. What to avoid: “One strike, you’re out!”

As much as feedback should be a regular part of our ongoing personal and professional relationships, not every single personal or professional affront requires a feedback conversation. In fact, most people should be entitled to one or two breaches of behavior before the need to have a sit down. In his book, “18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done,” management guru Peter Bregman writes, “Trying to decide whether to talk to someone about something is a surprisingly time-consuming activity. Should we? Shouldn’t we? Maybe we talk to three other people to ask their advice – -which takes more of our time and their time.”

I agree with Bregman who suggests that having a rule of three saves us the time and energy involved in having an effective feedback conversation for every single offense. The first time that someone does something that bothers you, just notice it. The second time, you can begin to wonder (not accuse) if the first time was the beginning of a pattern of behavior. The third time is time enough to bring up your observation that this seems to be recurring conduct.

Of course, you don’t have to wait. If you are feeling deeply hurt or overwhelmingly bothered, then say something. Don’t let something fester, as it will eventually escalate out of proportion to the size of the original offense. And if someone engages in a single act of behavior that is clearly racist, sexist, homophobic – especially in the workplace where these are potentially job-ending offenses – you can and should bring it up right away. Your early intervention in this case may not just prevent further hurt feelings but can save someone’s job or prevent a lawsuit. And that is a gift.

2. What to avoid: “This is going to hurt you more than it hurts me!”

Begin the conversation by stating your positive intention for your relationship. Let’s face it: few people eagerly anticipate having a “big talk.” Most of us shut down once we hear the phrase, “I want to talk with you about something.” I recommend starting the feedback conversation by sharing your positive intention for engaging in this conversation, such as “I want to talk to you about one thing that’s been bothering me because I look forward to our continuing to work well together for a long time to come.” While you cannot control how someone hears that message, you can lay the foundation for the person to have reason to believe that you care about them personally and that you are committed to the health of your relationship for the long haul. Setting a positive intention can help the other person avoid “catastrophizing” (as in “That’s it! I’m fired!”) from the outset. By starting your conversation with your optimistic plans for the future, you may decrease the anxiety that could otherwise get in the way of you really being heard.

Your positive intention, however, should be genuine. If you’re having a conversation that is clearly the beginning of the end – of their job, of your marriage – be candid. In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, “When there is no truth, there is no kindness.”

Next time: Assuming Innocent Intentions, Naming What’s at Stake, and Sharing (At Least Some) Responsibility.

What are your best tips for giving feedback? What hasn’t worked? Use the space below to let me know.