Thursday, December 15, 2011

You Catch More Flies With Honey

A few weeks ago, I wrote about accepting feedback, and part of what makes that difficult. However, it's also worth reflecting on what makes giving feedback also a challenge.

The most obvious answer, of course, is that many people are uncomfortable with conflict and fear that even well-meant negative feedback will be received with some degree of defensiveness, hurt, or anger. It's not really an irrational fear - any of those responses are definitely possible, while it is not possible to control what response you receive.

It's also true that most of us do not have the luxury to avoid giving feedback. We give feedback to our supervisees, sometimes our supervisors, and yes, even clients. In the case of clients, feedback may take the form of confrontation (e.g., highlighting discrepancies between a client's words and behavior), or redirection of inappropriate or detrimental behavior.

We provide feedback in order to be helpful: to facilitate growth and/or prevent harm. We may undertake it in the most nonjudgmental and kindhearted of mindsets...but the other person does not know what our mindset is, and many of our clients (and more than a few of us) may have insecurities that make them (us) vulnerable to criticism. Any sort of feedback can affect self-esteem, depending on how the receiver internalizes it. So, while one person may think, "Oops, she's right, I should have done that differently," another person may think "I should have known better than to make that mistake. She must think I'm an idiot."

Now, as I said above, it isn't possible to control the other person's reaction - to make sure, for example, that they think like person #1 rather than person #2. However, there are some strategies that we can use to make our feedback easier to hear. These strategies all seem to fall into the category: "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."

1) The feedback sandwich
Perhaps the most straightforward strategy is to "sandwich" a piece of negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback: praise, criticize, praise. The positive feedback makes the negative feedback easier to hear, perhaps because it protects against a precipitous drop in self-esteem that might accompany negative feedback alone.

2) Empathic feedback
Any negative feedback is easier to hear when it is said in the kindest possible way, in an empathic and understanding tone, with explicit recognition of the person's best intentions, and assurance of ongoing positive regard (i.e., that you still respect the person and that their good qualities are not negated by the feedback).

3) Focus on concrete behaviors rather than personal qualities
We've all heard this advice when it comes to child-rearing: discipline should emphasize that a behavior is wrong, not that the child is "bad." The same principle can be applied to adults. Feedback is most effective when it focuses on a concrete behavior that the person can identify and change, rather than either vague feedback that does not suggest a specific change, or feedback focused on something that the person cannot easily changed (e.g., shyness).

4) The VCR technique
From the book Teens Who Hurt, this strategy suggests that feedback may be more effective when structured as follows: V - begin by validating, i.e. expressing understanding of the other person's perspective, and acknowledging a strength or positive quality (kind of like the feedback sandwich). C - next comes challenge, i.e. provide the corrective feedback, ideally building upon the information contained in the validation. R - finally, request, i.e. identify a specific behavioral corrective action.

How do you think about giving feedback? What strategies do you find make it easier for someone to hear and respond positively to feedback?

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