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The misunderstanding we call feedback

An experienced manager with hearing difficulties, Anneke*, is invited to lunch by a fellow manager, Els*. During lunch, Els says "Gosh, Anneke, your hearing problems do seem to be getting worse lately, are you still comfortable being a manager? Isn't it time for you to look toward your future?”

Anneke is somewhat overwhelmed, thanking her colleague for her concern and open feedback. Later at home, she notices that she is actually not at all comfortable with what happened.

What actually happened?

A little analysis based on the principles of connecting communication

(Marshall B. Rosenberg)

Connecting communication assumes that our actions arise from from a particular need, something important to us, that we want to fulfil. This involves taking responsibility for fulfilling our needs ourselves and not making others responsible (or guilty) for it.

There are 7 universal human needs:

• physical well-being (sleep, food, shelter, etc.),

• making a contribution,

• developing your autonomy and potential,

• connection with others,

• having fun and

• safety (in the sense of knowing you are safe).

Depending on the moment, a particular need (it could be more than one at a time) will be front and centre and demand your attention.

Our feelings then have a 'signalling function': they give us information about whether or not our needs are met. Negative feelings indicate that a need is not fulfilled.

Els apparently experiences some frustration in working with Anneke. She may find that she has to repeat certain things regularly because Anneke does not always hear them well and that meetings take longer than she would like. A certain need of Els, for efficiency and progress, is apparently not being met in the collaboration.

However, looking at the 'feedback' Els gives to her colleague, one notices that it is only about Anneke. Anneke apparently needs to look toward her future. However, Els's action – i.e. her statements, her 'feedback' – is driven from her own needs and actually have nothing to do with Anneke...

Interestingly, Anneke also interpretes Els' statements as concern and open feedback. And, basically, we are supposed to do something with feedback, we are supposed to be open to it, see it as a gift.

But is that actually true, is this a ‘gift’ for Anneke? Is this something she needs to do something with? And is this even really about care for Anneke?

How to proceed?

Actually, Els mainly has something to do, she can develop creative strategies to make her meetings more efficient. She can figure out how to improve her collaboration with Anneke. That way, she takes responsibility for what is important to her.

Anneke can also do something, namely explore how she feels about the situation, what needs of hers are compromised and what she herself could do about this. Anneke also feels frustration, anger, confusion, but probably originating from other needs. Anneke may want more equality in her collaboration with Els. She may also want recognition: more attention for her results, for the successes she achieves, despite her disability.

How could Anneke be more creative about doing what is important to her? She can, of course, talk to Els about this. But it might be even more interesting for Anneke to see how she gives herself more recognition so that she becomes less susceptible to Els' comments. By giving herself more recognition and appreciation (i.e. making concrete for herself what results she achieves, what successes she has had, where she has made a positive contribution in meetings, etc.), she comes to be stronger and more independent.

With this stronger personal foundation, she can also take a more equal position in working with Els. She in turn may notice that and therefore automatically take a different tone in her contact with Anneke…

So what does this say about feedback in general?

  • That above all else, feedback often says a lot about the giver's feelings and needs. If you realise this as a giver, it gives you a fantastic opportunity to find smart and appropriate solutions to this. You can then discuss it, but do so from a different angle and basic attitude. Moreover, you could also look for other ways to fulfil your needs.

  • That when giving feedback, it makes sense to indicate the needs that cause you give it (what is important to me, what do I value highly, what do I really care about?). Which are fulfilled, which are unfulfilled. If when you give feedback, you indicate what is important to you, i.e. why you are giving it, it also makes it easier for the recipient to receive the message.

  • If you combine that with the 'golden old rule' of starting your feedback with a concrete observation, the facts, it already becomes a very different story. In this case, Els might say: "I heard you ask to repeat my explanation four times in the last meeting. I get from this that you really want to understand what I mean. I like that, because it is important to me that what we discuss is sufficiently clear (need is met). At the same time, I felt some irritation and impatience, because I also value the efficiency of our meetings (need not met). It is important for me to work together pleasantly in an open atmosphere, which is why I wanted to talk to you about it. How does this sound to you?”. They can then jointly look at what options there are for dealing with this differently.

  • Do you think it is ‘not done’ to put this so openly on the table? If you are concerned about someone's reaction, it is important for you to get your message right. The fact that you feel anxious (feeling) about this is a sign that a need of yours, probably for 'emotional safety' (that you feel comfortable and at ease with expressing your feedback), is not being met. But what about the other person's emotional security? Can Anneke get your message right at that moment? So it is useful to assess whether the other person can feel emotionally safe with your feedback. You could indicate that you want to talk about something important but possibly sensitive, and check if it is a good time for her to do so.

  • So it may make sense to rethink your feedback. However, if you do nothing with it and you (and probably the other person, too) do continue to feel the irritation, that will affect your relationship. In this case, Anneke may also prefer openly discussing it, so you can do something about it together. That often works out better than leaving things unaddressed.

  • That feedback is often not the most effective strategy to fulfil the giver's needs. Back to the example for a moment: Els may have frustrations surrounding efficiency in meetings more often. By blaming it mainly on Anneke, and hoping that Anneke might look for another job, she will probably experience relief at first, only to get plenty annoyed again with new, different colleagues who are not functioning as she thinks they should. It may require extra effort for her to figure out how, based on her leadership style, she can make people more aware of the importance of meeting more efficiently. It requires reflection on her own style, approach and effectiveness. But it does make her grow as a leader.

  • Feedback such as "Shouldn’t you look toward your future?”. is often labelled as ‘caring’ for the other person, while it often is arising from frustration or powerlessness on the part of the giver. My advice: dare to examine and question feedback. Of course, feedback is an important sign that something is going on, but what really matters is drawing the right conclusions and actions from it!

(* names are fictitious due to privacy of those involved.)

Are you also curious about how to give and receive feedback and how you and your team can become (even) more effective at this? Contact me for a free intake!


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