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Speaking Constructively

Have you heard of the feedback sandwich? That is what we want to talk about today. Feedback is not easy to give, and certainly not easy to take, but we have to regard it as a monitoring tool that can help us grow personally and professionally.

We have talked about coaches and mentors previously as valuable options in building ourselves up, and most likely we would be in a better place to accept feedback from our coach, mentor, and supervisor.

But there will also be feedback that is equally valuable from colleagues and clients, you know, pastors, friends and relatives, in other words, people we have not necessarily entered into any sort of performance contract with, people who we don’t immediately see as eligible to give us feedback about how well we work and what kind of experience it is to work with us.

And so, as it often happens, when we get feedback from our contracted observers (the boss, the coach, the mentor) we make some notes and assume a contemplative posture, promising to review and revise as discussed. But when the feedback is from someone else, you know, the friend, pastor, relative, and, dare I say from the enemy, it is easier to receive that with a ‘what do you really know’ kind of attitude.

Of course, there are variables that will affect how the feedback is perceived, and received, by you.  The style and approach of the person giving the feedback may be jarring (hurtful words used), clumsy and cowardly (done in public, through an intermediary, or sent through email for instance), and absolute (with statements that start you never, or you always), such that it makes you feel like you have never done anything right, you are wrong for the job and there is no hope of improvement.

Alternatively, the comments may feel personal and subjective, seemingly attacking your character rather than focusing on your performance. I recall a boss who always premised feedback with ‘if you were as attentive to clients as you are to your manicure, we would not be having this problem’. There are so many other variables that will come to your mind that will help make my point that the approach affects the reception.

But then maybe the approach was fine, but in our multi-generational and highly diversified work environments, you felt the person giving feedback was too young, of the wrong social group, or whatever the objection was, which made you feel disrespected, undermined and so on, taking your focus away from the point being made about your performance.

Finally, you may just be feeling insecure in your position, so that when feedback is given, you think they are just building a case and preparing to fire you, so you just go through the motions of listening with no intention of using the information.

Whatever the details and circumstances in your case, it is important for you as a teachable individual with ambitions to

grow personally and professionally to cultivate a listening ear so that you identify something useful in the feedback that could benefit you sooner or later.

Get to a point where regardless of how badly handled it was, in retrospect the feedback session gave you perspective and you were able to grow one way or another from it. Ok, now for the best way to package the feedback. It is important to focus on the performance and how it affects the bigger picture. And when you do give the feedback, acknowledge and appreciate the positive as much as you detail the areas of concern. It is called a feedback sandwich. Starting with a positive, leading on to the concerns and suggested improvements, and concluding with a positive.  For instance, instead of saying ‘you are simply failing to deliver and I don’t know how much longer I can tolerate this’, say something like, ‘I recognise the effort you put into this but we agreed on a certain level of output to help us meet our goals, and currently your levels are below that agreement which affects us in this way (give an outline the impact of the under-delivery). If you can’t improve this in such a period (indicate the period), of course with our support, then we may have to review the relationship. You do bring a positive energy that I find motivating, so if we can harness that to help bring the agreed results it would be a win/win.’

Obviously someone can read that and shoot holes through it right away, but the idea is to show how the same point can be made without throwing the baby out with the bath water. With practice, it is possible to create a feedback sandwich for any set of circumstances. And it is possible to learn to deliver that sandwich, let me say to serve that sandwich, with equal measures of professionalism, compassion and empathy.

In other words, to say it in objectively without attacking the dignity of the person, and to say it with an understanding of how it would feel to be the one hearing that feedback. Because if you can empathise, you would anticipate, and be able to accommodate some level of reaction from your audience.

And for the audience, it is an acquired skill to receive the sandwich with maturity. There may be a sting. There usually is. It’s natural. Are you going to take offence? Every time? You have to learn to eat the meat and leave the bones as a friend once said to me. Take what is useful and nourish your growth. There really is no other way.



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