The Test team book club at Linguamatics is currently reading What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback. Here’s a couple of quotes that I picked out for our last session:
- If you’re really interested in helping people, you’ll do well to start your feedback by opening your own motives to inspection.
- Even when it’s given at the receiver’s request, feedback describes the giver more than the receiver.
- When the data and their model don’t match, most people discard the data.
I recall an instance when, engaged in discussion with a colleague I’ll call Russell, about the data analysis he was presenting, I spotted an opportunity to offer feedback. It was about something that I knew Russell wanted to change. It was about something that I knew was open to me to give feedback on, because we had talked about it. It was about something that I thought would be beneficial for Russell in multiple ways and, I hoped, would provide some insight into a particular behaviour pattern that he had.
However, it was also the first time that I had seen this particular thing. A data set of size one. I had no evidence, yet, that it would lead to the end point that Russell desired to alter. A data set of size zero.
Against this: my instinct, my gut, and my experience. And a sense of goodwill, built up over time, over repeated interactions, over sometimes difficult sessions where I had tried to demonstrate that I do care to assist and support and advise because I want to help Russell to be the best he can be, in the respects that matter to him and for his work.
But I was still cautious. I have unwittingly burned and been burned enough times over the years to know that each of these conversations carries with it risks. Risks of misreading the context, risks of misreading the agreements, risks of misreading the mood, risks, risks, risks, …
But I went ahead anyway. The potential benefit and the goodwill in the bank outweighed the risks, I calculated, on this occasion. And I gave my feedback. And Russell agreed with me. And I breathed a deep internal sigh of relief.
Comparing this anecdote to the quotes I pulled from the book:
- My motives, I think, were good: I wanted to help Russell achieve a personal goal.
- But the feedback does reflect something about me: an interest in reducing unnecessary complexity, an interest in making presentation clear, the ego that is required to believe that my colleagues will want to listen to any advice from me, …
- In this case, it turned out my suggestion didn’t contradict Russell’s model but exposed it, and in any case I had little concrete data to present.
I use this episode as an example not because it ended well, particularly, but because it’s an illustration for me of how much I have been influenced by What Did You Say? in the couple of years since I first read it. I consciously I go about my day-to-day business, doing my best to be careful about when I choose to offer feedback, about when I deliberately choose not to, and about picking up and picking up on any feedback that’s coming my way in return.
I try to treat this as a testing task where I can, in the sense that I try hard to observe my own actions and the responses they generate, and I think about ways in which they might be related and how I might approach things differently in the next exchange, or at another time, with this person, or someone else.
Easier said than done, of course, so I’ll finish with another quote from the book, another quote that I’ve taken to heart and act on, that regularly helps guide me with pretty much everything that I’ve said above:
Don’t concentrate on giving feedback; concentrate on being congruent – responding to the other person, to yourself, and to the here-and-now situation. Don’t go around hunting for opportunities to give feedback, because feedback is effective only when the need arises naturally out of congruent interactions.
Some details have been changed.