It isn’t easy for people to be honest with us, even when we ask them to be. In addition, those that we ask may not have the professional expertise to offer us the insights we need to work through difficult challenges.
Early on in my career, I was consulting for a major film and music studio in Los Angeles when a woman approached me to say, “Dr. Ron, I really love what you are teaching us, but would you like some feedback?” I’d learned from spiritual teacher Ram Dass that he always read letters and evaluations he got from his talks and teachings and what he paid attention to most intently was the negative feedback. He not only read and reread the more hostile and critical feedback forms, but, when he could, he’d either call or write the person to better understand the feedback and where it was coming from. Some of those letters turned into long exchanges until he felt that he’d truly processed what the critics were telling him.
I knew that this woman who approached me might offer some helpful insights, so even if it bruised my ego a little to be criticized, I said, “Fire away.”
She told me that she loved what I was teaching, then added, “but you’re teaching in the voice of an upper-crust white male.” I was taken aback, but recognized that this woman had done me a favor in pointing out my bias. I took a deep breath and said, “Tell me more.”
She gave me at least five examples where I had offered case examples about work that were all about men — and white men at that. In my family, we had six sisters and four brothers, but it was obvious to me that I’d adopted some of my dad’s strongly embedded views that came from spending his career in a corporate world dominated by white men. My dad always discussed men when he told his work-related stories. Rarely, if ever, had he brought up any stories about women. I hadn’t thought about how his limited experience working with women at his office back in an era when there were fewer women in the workplace might have influenced the types of anecdotes he shared.
I thanked the woman for sharing her perspective and promised I would change up my teaching stories. As a result of her feedback, I now think and teach with diversity in the foreground.
Fortunately, this woman’s criticism came from an open heart so it was easy to not take offense. If you’re asked to give feedback to someone in your life or at work, I find these four techniques keeps the conversation positive and productive:
1. Give your full attention. When anyone tells you about or shows you their project, give them your undivided attention. Don’t scroll on your phone, don’t multitask, and don’t interrupt except to ask for clarification. Set the foundation for them to be honest and vulnerable.
2. Respond with positivity. If you think it’s an awful idea, you can say something like, “It sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought and work into this project so far.” Go ahead and compliment them for their efforts rather than the outcome.
3. Ask questions from a place of genuine curiosity. Use questions such as, “I don’t think I’ve heard that before. How did you come up with that idea?” and “What about this plan appeals to you the most?” Understanding where they’re coming from and what their aspirations are can help you to better encourage them and give them constructive feedback. You can share what you’ve done in similar situations and what the outcome was. In this way, you’re making yourself vulnerable and making them feel more comfortable with any criticism you offer because you’re showing that, at times, you’ve been unsure or made wrong turns.
4. Offer feedback diplomatically. Finally, you can suggest something you think they might work on, but wait to see how they respond before you give them more feedback. Don’t overwhelm people with criticism and advice. You can ask whether they’d like more feedback or if they would rather work with their project some more first. In both my Art of Leadership and Core Creativity workshops, I’ll often ask: Would you like my feedback as mild, medium, or severe — like the hottest salsa?
Also, when asking for feedback on your project or idea, make sure to solicit it from a diverse group of people. You may benefit from asking someone with expertise in a particular area, someone who is good with alerting you to your emotions, someone with a different temperament, or someone who is very intuitive.
About the Author
Ronald A. Alexander, PhD, is the author of the new book, Core Creativity: The Mindful Way to Unlock Your Creative Self (Rowman & Littlefield, June 21, 2022), upon which this article is based. He is a creativity and executive leadership coach, as well as a licensed mind-body psychotherapist. He’s the executive director of the OpenMind® Training Program that offers personal and professional training programs in mindfulness-based therapies, transformational leadership and meditation. He is also the author of the highly acclaimed book, Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Crisis, Loss, and Change (2008). Learn more at www.CoreCreativity.com.
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