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The art of feedback

Reimagined: The art of feedback

Honest feedback is hard. Hard to listen to, and hard to give.

So does feedback work best in the structured moments we’ve made for it? Or should we embrace it in all the moments in-between?

Drawing on her own experience, Louise Clifton explores.

I wrote this blog in early 2019. Back then, I thought I was writing about feedback and the importance of it. But reading it now, in our new virtual world, I realised that what I was really writing and thinking about wasn’t feedback. Or at least not entirely. What it was really about was trust. And how to build this through being human.

Right now, our humanity is right there on our sleeves. We see into each other’s worlds – homes, families and wardrobes – and we understand and see more immediately other responsibilities, cares and concerns too.

In this new world when we see so much more, we need trust. If we fall, we need to know that we’ll be caught, and held, until we can get back up again. Feedback is one way we can build this environment. One way in which we can make safe a place to say things like, ‘I don’t know’, and to find a way forward together.

When I wrote this blog, I’d started a journey to gently move on from a place of fierce protectionism over my world at that time. Since then I’ve been learning to let this go. To not fight feedback but to trust that it’s given in kindness and to help me grow. In the last year my colleague and I have kept up this journey and I’m not moving so gently anymore. Instead, I’m now keeping pace and walking alongside him as we figure out what the future looks like together. Trust in hand.

I hope in reading this it gives you some ideas, some encouragement and a little bit of energy to find ways to enable and let feedback flourish now, so that when we all see each other again, it’ll be as if it were yesterday, only better.

Higher education is an intensely feedback-rich environment. We have a wealth of formal feedback processes in our practices of teaching and learning, academic peer reviews, and annual Personal Development Reviews, to name but a few. But if feedback is only handled in these constructed moments, where does that leave the time that occurs in-between?

These moments aren’t Polyfilla for the time between formal reviews.”

These informal, in-between, moments are essential. It’s in these gaps that we can connect and feedback with one another in an environment without regulation. And these moments aren’t Polyfilla for the time between formal reviews. They’re everyday life.

How we use this time to connect with colleagues is critical, because it’s through the little and large actions that we take every day that we build trusting relationships with others. And with trust, comes the ability to be fearless when things go wrong. And that’s the clincher.

I’d like to share my own experience of the power of feedback in the spaces in-between:

If you know me, you may know that I’m a thinker first, doer second. I’m fiercely protective of doing things ‘my way’ and in my own time, and I’m most responsive to feedback when I have time to think about it. But these natural preferences can make it difficult to change my viewpoint on things I really care about, or to change things rapidly when I need to.

I work with colleagues whose practice is to reflect and adapt often, and to be open in sharing thoughts and feelings whilst doing so. Feedback for them is a more natural go-to, and their capacity for taking it on and rolling with it fast astonishes me.

Together, we practise fearless feedback. It’s our commitment to each other that when an irritation grows, no matter when, we fearlessly feed this back to one another. It’s our free pass to ask, ‘Hold on, what was that about?’

It’s revolutionised the way we work. And that’s no understatement. It’s redefined boundaries on issues that we both made assumptions about, often without ever realising. It’s allowed us to understand our motivations more clearly so we can capitalise on these, and to make changes that have made things easier for the other person and better for our organisation.

So how do you go about nurturing something like fearless feedback?

It must be thoughtful, and thought through.”

There are some important considerations you need to make and allow for. It’s not an excuse to have a go, nor nit-pick. It’s must be thoughtful, and thought through. It is a conversation that is held with agreement, and at a good time for both people.

You must not blame and you must hold your gut reaction and sit with it, because at the end of the day, no one likes to be questioned, or hear that what they did, said, or how they acted was felt negatively. You’re not alone here.

Lastly, it must be done with kindness, and a willingness to listen and adapt on both sides, no matter who is feeding back.

The battle of disclosure

Something I didn’t mention before. I can be intensely private. This is no bad thing in itself, but it means that when I need to disclose a discomfort, or admit that something is not right (professionally or personally) and I need help, this can be difficult. Often, I battle with disclosure.

Disclosure builds trust, but it’s not easy and I’m the first to admit this. But knowing how much you’re willing to disclose, and choosing the right moment to challenge yourself, is a personal and professional strength that will build resilience. It will allow you get to know yourself more if nothing else, and allow others to do so too.

Self-knowing is good, self-absorption less so.”

There is a balance to be had, and thinking about what you disclose, how and when you say it, and how this will affect others is essential; self-knowing is good, self-absorption less so.

In the end there is a subtlety to all of this, precisely because it’s about our humanity and vulnerability. So holding kindness close to you no matter which end your on is key.

From a hard-nosed business perspective it’s easy to leave feedback on the periphery; perhaps because it’s difficult or because there are always other, more pressing, issues. But if you can find a way to unlock more of it, more subtly, more often, in more of your relationships, and with more compassion, well…it will only be a good thing.

If you enjoyed this blog and you have access to Twitter, you may enjoy tweets by Amy Fast @fastcrayon, a high school Assistant Principal who often tweets about the topics covered here.

By Louise Clifton

Louise is the former Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail. Louise’s passion is to help people bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters.

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