Saturday, August 29, 2020

Note to Self: All Feedback Is a Gift; and It's All Accurate

The "you" and "I" in the post are both me (yes, I'm talking to myself).  Note that, in this post, the term "feedback" denotes constructive criticism only.  I also exclude from consideration cases where the person giving the feedback is deliberately lying or where critical aspects of the feedback are built upon presumed facts that are demonstrably incorrect.


Remember that:
  • All feedback is a gift.  Imagine feedback to be a stated observation regarding a non-deterministic system that is essential for you to get anything done; but the system has no documentation, no source code, no unit tests and thus no ability to be upgraded.  In order to understand the system, all you can do is create a set of conditions, perform an operation using some input and observe the system's non-deterministic response.  Whenever you uncover problems in the system's behavior that you think will happen again, you devise workarounds.  But you don't always remember them or apply them correctly; besides, the system behavior is changing without you knowing.  Will the workarounds even work today?  Understanding this system and using it to get things done would be a hard job.  If someone reported a new potential bug for that system, would you be angry with them?  Or would you treat it like gold?
  • All feedback is accurate: it's accurate that it is their stated perception.

When someone gives you feedback, apply the following algorithm:
  • Take some deep breaths, listen and be curious.  Try to reflect that in your body language as soon as you can - you're curious only.  It may take 30 seconds or so to consciously put yourself in that state.  You can sometimes buy yourself time by just saying "hmm...let me think about this" with a Sherlock Holmes face.  Why do this?  Because unless you're devoid of emotion (i.e. not human) you will likely have a quick negative reaction even if you don't verbalize it.  At worst, you may be subjected to a mini emotional hijacking where emotions (anger, defensiveness) supersede logic in response to a perceived threat (criticism perceived as attack).  You want to get out of that and consciously move to curiosity, by enabling transfer of control from the emotional decision-making center in your brain to the logical decision-making center of your brain.  The best way to do that is to provide additional time for your brain to re-process the stimulus.
  • To what may this be compared?  Imagine you're taking a walk in a field.  All of a sudden, out of the corner of your eye, you notice a thin, long, dark, crooked object 2 feet away from you.  A snake!!  Your immediate response is existential fear which causes the release of stress hormones, telling you to jump back and protect yourself.  Within about two seconds you see it's a stick and laugh at yourself.  But if you notice, you feel pressure in your chest, your breathing has quickened, your heart rate has escalated, your blood pressure is through the roof and you certainly have an unpleasant look on your face.  You do not always perceive feedback this way, but the closer it feels to an attack the more you do so.  And your ability to be emotionally self-aware in such a situation is limited.  That's why it's important to give yourself time to move from an emotional response to a reason-based response, just as you needed in the situation of the snake.
  • Fight the urge to debate the issue or provide justification/excuses for the behavior or output (e.g. a presentation) they may be criticizing.  This urge is almost always there.  Swallow it.
  • Even if it feels unnatural, say something along the lines of "Thanks for the feedback.  I know it's not easy to be transparent and I really appreciate it."  You will actually feel the truth of this statement if you give yourself time and if you are honest with yourself.
  • If you have questions of a clarifying nature only, say "Do you mind if I ask some clarifying questions?  I want to make sure I understand your perspective properly".  Asking questions that are thinly-veiled attempts to get them to see the lack of validity of their criticism are not clarifying questions.  Avoid all questions and statements that suggest you may consider the feedback to be potentially invalid or useless.
  • Let's say the feedback is "I feel like you're kind of disrespectful in the way you communicate".  This is not a silly example.  Some clarifying questions:
    • Do you mean in email, documents, IM, face-to-face communications?
    • Do you mean in work settings?  Out of work settings? (e.g. drinks with the team after work)
    • Do you mean just with you, just with other specific people, in group settings?
    • Is it all the time?  Most of the time?  Often?  Sometimes?
    • What are some recent examples?  And when they say they can't remember, which is a common response, see if you can seed their memory and encourage further transparency by calling out potential examples.  "In that recent team meeting I know I was hammering home the point that I really think we should do X despite the fact that so and so said we should do Y?  They rolled their eyes.  Is that an example?"
  • Once you've clarified, restate the newly-codified feedback statement to them and see if they agree that it's accurate.  If not, keep iterating.  Example restatement: "OK.  So you're saying in group meetings, I discourage opinions that are different than my own, quickly trying to shut them down.  I even go so far as to mock the person a bit.  A recent example was when we were trying to decide whether to use the whigglewham library or the zipzorp library.  I was clearly in favor of using whigglewham but when so-and-so advocated for zipzorp, not only did I cut the conversation short, I mocked them when I said sarcastically, 'Heh. And how long have you been on this team?  You know how doorknobs work, right?'  All communications aside from verbal communications in group meetings are respectful.  Is that accurate?"  Once you land on an agreed-upon statement of the feedback, your understanding of the feedback is likely to be far more precise and actionable.
  • Now you want to wrap up.  If there is any doubt, don't acknowledge fault at this point.  If there is obvious fault acknowledge it and offer any apology that is genuine.  Except in the most obvious cases, avoid stating what your corrective actions are going to be (if any) because you likely need to think about that.
  • End with "Again, thanks for the feedback.  I appreciate the transparency and this is really helpful."

Now you begin the process of thinking through the feedback, whether to take any action and if so what that action should be.  That's an exercise left to the reader.


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