Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Compulsion to Give Feedback

Continuing the the series of samples from various books, this week I'm posting a chapter from What Did You Say?: The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback.
 The ebook version is posted on and other sites for only $9.99. It is also part of the Bargain Book Bundle, The Tester's Library, a collection of seven books for only $49.99:
Perfect Software and Other Illusions About Testing
Are Your Lights On: How to Know What the Problem Really Is
Handbook of Technical Reviews (4th edition)
General Systems Thinking: An Introduction
What Did You Say?: The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback
More Secrets of Consulting: The Consultant's Tool Kit
Becoming a Technical Leader
The Aremac Project

The Compulsion to Give Feedback

The best way to convince a tenderfoot is to let him have his own way.

Even When Requested, Feedback Describes the Giver
Jerry was presenting a workshop in Lincoln, where he then lived. It was the first time he had offered this particular workshop, and he was quite anxious about how well it was going. At the end of the first day, Jerry gave Foster a ride home. While they rode, he asked Foster, "How did it go?"

Foster said, "Jerry, there's only one thing that I don't understand out of our discussion today."

"And what's that?" Jerry asked.

"If you're such a good consultant, why do you drive such an old car?"

Jerry may have thought he was asking for feedback about his workshop, or about himself. Instead, he got information about Foster. This suggests the first of The Giver's Fact:

Even when it's given at the receiver's request,
feedback describes the giver more than the receiver.

Why should this be so? The Satir's Interaction Model gives us some clues:

  1. The giver only perceives certain aspects of the receiver's behavior. Nobody can give feedback on behaviors that are outside of their perception.
  2. Second, givers then organize these perceptions in ways that are meaningful to them. Nobody will comment on things that they do not see as having meaning.
  3. The giver selects certain aspects out of thousands that might be commented upon, according to the emotional reaction triggered in them. That day, Foster happened to be interested in new cars.
  4. The giver's inner feelings and rules for commenting determine the style, choice of words, emotional tone, and non-verbal cues that comprise the entire feedback package.

All of this provides information on how the giver sees other people and behaves towards them. In fact, clever individuals often seek feedback solely to diagnose the giver, paying little or no attention to the content as it applies to them.

The Second Most Essential Human Need
The Giver's Fact says we reveal ourselves by giving feedback. Don't we respect our privacy enough to be unwilling to reveal so much about ourselves? So why don't we keep our feedback to ourselves?

The simple truth is that we cannot help ourselves. Giving feedback seems to be the second most essential ingredient of life itself–after air, and before water. Humans can live for about three minutes without air, three days without water, and three months without food. But according to our observations, most people cannot live more than three hours without offering someone else an observation about themselves–often in the form of advice.

Although we cannot hope to eliminate so fundamental a need, we might be able to help you tame your impulses. If we could stretch the three hours to four, or slow the reflex long enough for you to shape the feedback more appropriately, then we will have made an immense contribution to human welfare.

Perhaps the following facts about helping will help you not be so impatient to be helpful.

Nobility Isn't Good Enough
We often think since we're trying to help by giving feedback, it will be easy to succeed. As a result, we often become careless.

Fact: Wanting to help people may be a more noble motive than some, but that doesn't make feedback any easier.

Any time someone asks you for feedback–or even worse, pays you for feedback–you may think how smart and good you must be–so you grow careless. Giving or receiving feedback effectively always requires precise work. Careless feedback is a sure ticket to disaster.

They Have to Want It
If you're not absolutely sure they want your feedback, it's best to check it out. One way to check it out is by asking, which we seldom ever bother to do.

Fact: If people don't want your feedback, you'll never succeed in reaching them, no matter how smart or wonderful you may be.

We stress the importance of not giving uninvited feedback, not because it's morally wrong, but because it doesn't work. It's okay to do it if you don't care about your relationship with the other person. Or you don't mind wasting your own time. Indeed, that's a pretty good description of when you are likely to yield to the temptation to give unsolicited feedback:

We don't really care about the other person, and we don't have anything very useful to do with our time.

No Invitation is Forever
Even when you care about people who ask you for feedback, they may change their minds when they discover what your feedback will cost them. Once we start to give feedback, we often fail to recognize obvious clues that our feedback is no longer welcome.

What are such obvious clues? As the interaction advances, you may find yourself growing progressively more rude, impatient, and suspicious. If you feel that way toward someone you're trying to help, perhaps you're sensing that they don't want your help any longer.

Fact: Even when people agree that they want your help, that agreement is not usually a lifetime contract.

When you agree to provide feedback, you're not committed to continue giving it. You are committed to continue monitoring the situation to discover when the feedback is no longer wanted.
And then to stop.

Some Things Are Worse Than Failure
Just stopping seems hard to do, especially when "just one last word" will patch up the worsening situation. Whenever you find yourself thinking things couldn't get a lot worse, just remember that they can–a lot worse.

Fact: Even when you agree to give feedback to someone, that agreement need not be a lifetime contract. You're allowed to stop when you've had enough.

It's all right to admit you failed in your generosity, especially if it helps you stop before you make things a lot worse.

You Ain't No Saint
People who want to give feedback to other people generally expect to get something out of it for themselves–though they may not be aware of this expectation. Before you yield to the temptation to give feedback, become aware of your expectations.

Fact: There are very few living saints–at least, we've never had the pleasure of meeting any.

Most people agree that this moral applies to other people. Few people realize it applies to them. Certainly not any of your authors.

The Best Use of Giving Feedback
Giving feedback is often a way of exercising influence via the Trojan Horse. It looks as though it is for the benefit of the receiver but disguises the payoff to the sender. Regardless of the utility to the receiver, such feedback serves as a convenient vehicle for avoiding, displacing, attacking, gaining status, and justifying the status quo for the sender.

Fortunately for world peace, receivers can usually sense the existence of hidden motives in feedback. When they do, there's little chance of their accepting the ostensible message. If you're really interested in helping people, you'll do well to start your feedback by opening your own motives to inspection, perhaps by using the interaction model.

Of course, this seems a rather tedious way to start feedback, but most of the time, introspection and care with words will be far more efficient and effective than sending Trojan Horse Feedback. More often than not, however, we stop short of a full explanation of our motives. Instead, we settle for something quick, easy, comfortable, compatible, or self-limiting.

As a sender, your best use of feedback is to note your impulse to give, then reflect on what is going on inside you. There are unlimited opportunities of other things you might do to improve your relationships. What makes offering feedback your most appealing alternative? Have you become a feedback junkie? Have you forgotten there are other ways?


For the end of this year, I'm offering a list of bargain book bundles from Take a look at the books in each bundle by clicking one of these links:

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