169 - Feedback, observation, and coaching


personal developmentleadership

Over the last six months or so, I’ve clocked hours doing, what I’ve come to learn is, internal and external coaching. At work, I’ve done consistent hours of mentoring/coaching and I’ve been lucky enough to have a few paid coaching clients.

The experience has been humbling, enlightening. Every conversation with a client has opened a door to myself. Along the way, I’ve come to reflect on the difference between feedback and observation.

The experience of receiving feedback, no matter how kindly given, is contaminated by the past.

By the evolutionary past wherein criticism meant your place as a member of your tribe was under threat, all the way to your personal historical past wherein your previous negative experiences of feedback have formed a negative emotional association with receiving feedback.

You can’t do a thing about evolution; you can’t even change our past. When faced with brickbats or even mild criticism, you’re at risk of slipping into a doom loop of defensiveness and rejection (or false acceptance). That’s a common outcome for recipients of critical feedback.

Observations, on the other hand, come with much less baggage. They don’t evoke a strong association because—let’s face it—no tribal oracle was known to simply share their observations and let you, the target of their consideration, realize your folly. There’s much less history, as a species and as a person, that you have to overcome.

Observation has the power to transform reality by raising your awareness. Feedback has the power to distort reality by raising your defenses.

As the sharer of information, even though we want the receiver to see our point and in turn see the truth about themselves and hopefully make a change, we often set them up to resist us by choosing to give feedback.

Why do we work against our own interests?

We don’t, not consciously. But we have this itch. This really pesky itch to be right. Wanting to be right is so overpowering because being right is so delightful. The experience of being right gives us confidence, makes us feel as if our survival is guaranteed.

An observation does not, cannot, carry the feeling of being right. It doesn’t have that weight. It floats in the air. It cannot land with certainty like feedback can. An observation made about you simply nudges the door ajar to your consciousness. It opens the door to a conversation with the real you.

Feedback hands you a label. It implies judgment. Judgment is that gust of wind that when it rushes in it closes the door on any conversation.

If receiving feedback challenges your sense of self, giving it reinforces the way you see yourself. It persuades you that you’re better. That’s why you don’t just hate receiving feedback, you love giving it to others.

Those who can hold their judgmental horses can go far.

Once I was surprised by a report’s dissatisfaction during a performance appraisal. She shared a dotted-line relationship with me. Still, for months I had spent time talking to her every week. I should have known what mattered to her. I didn’t, or didn’t bother to. I was taken aback by what she shared during the performance calibration conversation.

Later that day, I spoke about this with my boss. I told him I was blindsided. Then I asked him if I could have done anything to avoid the turn of events. He paused and said without pointedness that it may help for me to be able to shift perspectives. While I was clear in my communication, making a habit of getting into the other person’s shoes and walking in them may help me see the things they do.

A bolt of lightning struck me. I was speechless for several moments. It was something I had suspected about myself without being able to put my finger on it. What had remained hidden around the corner for many years of my life was now staring right back at me. In an instant I could see it clearly.

Among all the things I have ever learned from any manager or boss in my entire career, the things I value the most are the things about myself they have helped me understand. I believe that is the highest level of mentoring or coaching. I also think it is rare. That afternoon I learned a lesson that has over time become hard to peel off me.

Helping someone learn something about themselves fixes their present predicament no doubt. It also tools them up for life. That is the double gift of helping someone understand themselves better. You can only bestow it on someone by making an observation, not sharing feedback.

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