All feedback is toxic – what nonsense!

Guest contribution by | 20.02.2023

All feedback is toxic – I often hear this sentence and it irritates me greatly. Assuming the sentence is true, what would be the consequence? Should we do without feedback altogether? Then we would have a problem: How do we find out whether and how our behavior suits the people around us? Should we rather bottle up the anger about situations? Sounds unhealthy!

No feedback at all also means no more positive feedback! Too bad, recognition is good, isn’t it?

And then there’s Master Watzlawick, whose first axiom of communication, “You can’t not communicate!”, points out that facial expressions and gestures and everything we can do with our voice are also part of communication. So then no more non-verbal and para-verbal signals. No more spontaneous signals and certainly no more appreciative smiles or nods of the head. That will be difficult. We can only manage that with absolute control over our bodies. Doesn’t sound very relaxed either.

Why do we need feedback?

If we no longer discuss the effects of our actions and words, if we don’t give each other feedback, then at some point we walk around like a bunch of ignorant egoists.

Without feedback, nothing works. Without feedback from the environment, we would still be swimming as an amoeba in the primordial soup, and probably not even that any more. And without feedback we cannot learn. Learning means gaining experience of how effective different behaviour patterns and structures are. Without feedback, there is no adaptation, no development, no survival, in the direct and figurative sense.

The alternative: give better feedback and get helpful feedback yourself.

Because better would already be good. Feedback often sounds like, “I’m going to tell you what to do or how to behave, because I don’t like it the way it is now!” This then comes either with an attitude of power, from an actual or supposed position of strength and knowledge, or with a mixture of anger and despair because the current situation is no longer bearable. Both are counterproductive one-way communication, because the result is rarely insight and improvement.

Feedback 101

Everyone should know Feedback 101 by now:

  • No “you” phrases, which sound like accusations.
  • No generalisations, they’re never right. (Oh, crap, you got me!).
  • No demands, that’s sheer power.
  • No negative-fault focus, that makes you small.
  • No “why” questions, they create pressure to justify.

All this is the ideal explosive for escalating conversations: “You never do…! I always have to… ! Why don’t you just do…! No, that’s wrong…! Why can’t you do it right for once?” The line between subjective evaluations and assertions, insinuations and accusations is narrow and very easy to cross; it quickly becomes personal. Instead of insight, defence arises.

If you have not yet experienced the explosive power of these turns of phrase, you can occasionally sprinkle one or the other into the evening conversation with your partner; children also work very well. The best time to do this is when you yourself are still excited about some crap that has just happened. This also reduces the ability to listen. Have fun!

That’s why the sandwich method is the way to go: start with praise, then the critical point and at the end again a positive outlook. It’s much more appreciative, isn’t it? I used to like it, until I was interrupted in the middle of a feedback session with “Ahh, the sandwich technique!”, which is apparently easy to grasp. Others say it doesn’t work because you either only perceive the positive or the negative and block out the rest.

It gets better with “I” messages, promptly to concrete situations, clarifying questions and requests, with a positive view on possibilities for improvement – some call it feedforward.

The factual level of feedback

Let’s start with feedback on situations that arise from the work context. Someone does not perform as expected, whether in a hierarchy or in a team, is unimportant.

The first question is the basis for the discussion, something like a performance agreement. How clearly was it formulated, how realistic was the task and how binding was it for those involved? If something is missing, I don’t have to talk about the performance, but about the agreement.

What about the parameters? Was everything as agreed or were resources lacking? What agreements were there on communicating disruptions and were they adhered to? If something is missing here, I don’t have to talk about performance, but about parameters, resources and processes.

With an error culture worthy of the name, it is then clarified together what needs to be done so that everything fits next time and disruptions can be eliminated in time. This is not feedback, however, but a discussion on the optimisation of processes and structures.

And if everything worked out, then maybe there were other limiting factors.

But how do I find all this out? By starting the conversation with “Look, this can’t go on”, followed by my expectations and disappointments, preferably in combination with the expected consequences? Certainly not. If you talk, you don’t learn anything new.

The communicative magic formula!

There is a magic formula that almost always helps to clarify tricky situations in communication, and that is: Ask a friendly-sounding and friendly-meaning question! “Tell me, how did it go?” Getting started has several positive aspects.

If something really went wrong, the conversation does not start with the perhaps expected telling off, but in a more relaxed way.

If it turns out during the conversation that the task or the parameters did not turn out as agreed, then it was good not to start ranting right away. It is much more exciting to find out why this was the case and how it can be improved for the future.

Of course, this is immediately followed by the next question: who was informed by whom and when that things were not going as planned. Here it usually turns out that there were no agreed processes for this or that those involved were not sensitive enough to the task or the deviations, or both. Again, two new construction sites where it is not quite clear who has to work there.

And if only personal factors remain, then it would probably make more sense to ask: “What prevented you from doing what we agreed? What would you have needed? How can I support you? What will we do next time you see a problem like this?”

With this approach, you are always on the safe side yourself and probably get the problem solved together in the end. No frustration on either side, a factual clarification of issues and the derivation of sensible agreements for the future.

I can already hear it: “But what if someone does this again and again?” I have a little rule of thumb there:

  • Once is coincidence.
  • Twice is stupidity.
  • Three times is intentional.

After the first time, you talk about what an early warning system needs to look like to better manage these coincidences. After the second time, it seems necessary to improve knowledge about the processes. And after the third time, it is important to also agree on the consequences in case of another repetition.

Back to our questions. Thus we have turned feedback into a situation analysis conversation from which both sides can only learn. Inspector Columbo sends his regards! Actually, instead of giving feedback, we have used it to get feedback in a very professional way, factual, acceptable and empathetic when needed.

And if it turns out during the interview that you didn’t know all the facts yourself, it doesn’t stand out so much if you ask good questions.

L. David Marquet has compiled good tips for questions and procedures in this context in his wonderful book “Leadership Is Language”¹. I also find Victor Cessan’s concept, which he mischievously calls the Feedback Model, very helpful.² In fact, he has put together a system of questions with which a potential feedback giver can consider before the interview with what justification and with what aim he wants to give feedback. Mischievous because after answering most of his questions, “feedback” becomes unnecessary and a better path can be taken. He virtually shifts the conversation I roughly sketched above as a virtual dialogue into his own head, trains the ability to analyse and criticise and saves frustration, and not only in the professional-objective context, but also in the private-personal environment.

Feedback in personal and private situations

This is where it gets trickier. How do I tell someone that something about their behavior bothers me? Here, too, I-messages help, just talking about concrete observations, about feelings, needs and wishes, about appointments and keeping them. The other person can take a position on this and we can talk about it. Reproaches etc. are left out.

And to whom the approach sounds somehow familiar – yes, that is the model of Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg.³ It consists of four components:

  1. Observations: What did I perceive? What happened?
  2. Feelings: How did this affect me? How did I feel?
  3. Needs: Why did I feel this way? Why is this important to me?
  4. Requests: That would be my wish. That’s what I’m asking you for!

This is a wonderful approach to first clarify for oneself what it is about a certain situation, a certain behaviour that has disturbed one so much, what annoys one so much that one would like to tell the other person.

This has become such a feedback block, to be found in umpteen sources in the literature and on the net, and to be recited in one piece:

“When I see, hear … [my observation of a behavior],

then I feel / I am … [my feeling],

because I … [my need] need / would like / would like / wish / is important to me….

And would you please … “ [MBR P. 189]

Surprisingly, dialogue is missing here. It is only about the opinion of the person giving feedback, the view of the other side is not of interest.

In Rosenberg’s book, which contains a wealth of interesting examples of conversations, this pattern only occurs in one place as a compact utterance, in the example of the admonishing conversation of a mother with her small child – for whatever reason. In all other situations it serves as a pattern for sometimes very long dialogues in order to clarify the sensitivities of the other side in small steps before talking about one’s own sensitivities, if that should still be necessary at all.

In my opinion, it would be very helpful to understand the model as a guide for dialogue, with clarifying back and forth at each step. It may turn out that one’s own observations were not as unprejudiced as one thought or that one was missing a piece of the context and thus arrives at a completely different outcome of the conversation.

Rosenberg also explains why it is helpful not to bang your own door into someone else’s house: “In most cases, however, another step has to be taken before we can expect the other person to come into contact with what is going on inside us. Because other people will often find it difficult to pick up our feelings and needs in such situations, it makes sense for us to tune in to them first if we want them to listen to us too.” [MBR P. 145]

This is nothing other than Watzlawik’s second axiom of communication “Every communication has a content aspect and a relationship aspect, the latter determining the former”. If the relationship is not right, the arguments come to nothing. Or in my words: someone has to want to listen to me before they can listen to me.

There is a second reason why I think this block feedback is useless. It is about hurt feelings, about being more or less angry with another person. As already mentioned, the model is excellent for finding out what actually bothers you about a situation. If you do this deeply enough and are honest with yourself, you will probably find that the situation was the trigger for the disturbing feelings, but not their cause.

Excuse me? The behavior of others is not the cause of my feelings, my anger?

Rosenberg says: “What other people do is never the cause of what we feel…. [We have] … four choices… when we are confronted with an utterance or behavior we don’t like. Anger arises when we choose the second option: Whenever we get angry, we look for a fault in the other person – we choose to play God by condemning or reproaching the other person for doing something wrong or deserving punishment…. Even if we are not aware of it at first, anger resides in our own thinking.” [MBR p. 138f.]

The four choices, according to Rosenberg, are:

  1. Blaming ourselves … the choice comes heavily at the expense of our self-confidence, because it bends us towards guilt, shame and depression.
  2. Blaming others … then our feeling is likely to be anger.
  3. Noticing our own feelings and needs … then we will never feel angry.
  4. Noticing the feelings and needs of others … then we will never feel angry either.

I’ll leave it at that. Have fun pondering.

Conclusion

What remains of the topic of “toxic feedback”?

  • You can’t do without feedback.
  • Simply making an announcement about how someone should behave is toxic, no matter how nicely it is worded.
  • Feedback is not a singular event, but a joint process.
  • An open dialogue is the linguistic path for the feedback process.
  • Only those who feel understood are open to the view of the other side.

Is all feedback toxic? In a command-and-control culture, probably. In the new world of collaboration, we can do better.

 

Notes:

If you like the post or want to discuss it, feel free to share it in your network.

[1] L. David Marquet: Leadership Is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don’t
[2] Giving better feedback with the EPIQ Model
[3] Marshall B. Rosenberg: Gewaltfreie Kommunikation: Eine Sprache des Lebens. [MBR]

We are pleased to recommend the German Communication.Cards by Conrad Giller. They help to playfully change ingrained language patterns in order to better shape discussions. It is about thoughtlessly used stereotypes, about shaping relationships, about helpful feedback and about decision making and decision communication. [What is so counterproductive about “Yes, but …” and “No, because …” and how can it be done much better? What formulations do I use to give or receive good feedback. What about the question “Are we all in agreement?” is not good for a decision-making process].

The offer is complemented by the new Columbo.Cards. Many differentiated tips combined with useful video material – definitely a good tip.

Communication.Cards von Conrad Giller

Conrad Giller has published other articles on the t2informatik Blog, including:

t2informatik Blog: Consensus, consent or what?

Consensus, consent or what?

t2informatik Blog: Tuckman was wrong - what nonsense!

Tuckman was wrong – what nonsense!

t2informatik Blog: Columbo: Oh, just one more thing...

Columbo: Oh, just one more thing…

Conrad Giller

Conrad Giller

Conrad Giller has been working for about 30 years as a trainer, coach and consultant for almost all challenges of oral communication: conflict, team, leadership, storytelling, presenting, moderating, media, etc. He is happy to pass on his experience online and offline in workshops.