Safety and Feedback

Feedback doesn’t have to hurt. In fact, under the right conditions, there is nothing we want more than to know the “truth” as others see it. We want to know how others feel about us and our performance. I’ve worked closely with dozens of senior executives over the years — and the number one complaint I hear from them is that people won’t tell them the truth.

The predictor of misery is not in the message itself; it is in how safe people feel hearing the message. If people feel psychologically safe, they crave truth. If they feel unsafe, even the tiniest hint of disapproval can be crushing.

It’s this theme of safety that’s key in The Key to Giving and Receiving Negative Feedback. While the article is aimed at feedback in professional settings, I think that one piece of advice has wider ramifications:

Ask permission. Control is central to safety. Never give feedback until it is invited. Offer it, but then wait until the other person feels ready to receive it. When you ask permission by saying something like, “Can I give you some feedback about your presentation?” you recognize the fact that the other person is responsible to get herself into a healthy emotional state before the feedback arrives.

This especially resonates with the (far too) many reports I hear from women and minorities being harassed online. Many of men1 doing the harassing see themselves as offering helpful criticism and can’t believe that someone wouldn’t receive their feedback nicely. When offering unsolicited feedback on the internet that is not received well, you’re the problem. Apologize and move on. Don’t be a sea lion.

  1. And yes, it’s almost always men. 

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