Photo by Monkey Simon on Flickr

Do you worry about whether someone will resist your feedback? Have you considered whether you are prepared to say what you really mean?

I would put some good money on your not being ready. Why? Because we humans are not only sloppy in our language, but we are often too lazy to take the time to consider our words and intended meaning.

Think about how quickly all of  us smart people jump into a conversation with our spontaneous way of describing our complaint or concern or request. It seems to remain true even when we are afraid, anxious or angry about the impact of the conversation. Even when the other person looks upset or confused, we can find ourselves defending our feedback rather than considering why it’s not communicating to the person. It can take some hard thinking work to ensure shared understanding.

Giving and soliciting feedback is a big topic. This post only covers the key success factor of peeling-the-onion on what you really want to convey. The onion analogy is a bit old and overused by consultants, but it’s perfect for this challenge.  The basic idea is to take your words of judgment and peel each layer of meaning until you get to the core communication—the facts and observations shared through a very intentional set of words.

I’ll give you the good and the bad news now.

The Good News

If you are committed to communicating the message you intend, you can peel-the-onion on the words you would most naturally use to describe the situation or behaviors. The peeling process may reveal a way to “frame” your information or may even change your feedback somewhat.

Here’s a very simple example: Suppose your team member has disappointed you by not delivering on his or her part of a project. And, suppose you think he has “dropped the ball on this project” in favor of another priority. You might be angry because it meant that you had to scramble to compensate for his lack of effort. Your phrase “dropped the ball” conveys some of that negative emotion, doesn’t it? (By the way, we add emotional words to positive feedback as well—like “great job!”)

What am I really talking about when I say “peel” the key words? Take our example and peel a few layers (some feedback takes more peels):

  1. Mary dropped the ball. (What do you mean by that?)
  2. She has disregarded this project, and doesn’t care about the impact she is having on the team. (OK, not much better. Peel this to a more neutral, unemotional assessment)
  3. She made other projects more important, and did not deliver my work (Now, go one step further to the actions and behaviors you are describing?)
  4. Mary was two days late in getting the report to me. She didn’t apologize or make any comment other than how busy she was with other work (these are the facts and observations).

Until you can “see it” in a picture, you are not really clear—and you will draw resistance. Few people will nod their heads and say “Yes, you are right. I dropped the ball, making all my other projects more important than you and your project.”

And, in fact, your opinions in this feedback are what you have assumed or imagined until you talk to Mary!

You will still use words that describe what you see, but you can combine them with your facts and observations. For example: “I’m worried about whether you are unintentionally letting my project drop in priority. Here’s why I say that: the last two deadlines were missed. When I ask you about the delay, you say that you’re ‘too busy’. What is your commitment to keeping this project’s deadlines?” Or, you might say “You’ve been late for the last two deadlines and have created  a need for me to do the work last minute. I need you to re-commit to this project, or let me know I cannot count on you as a member of the team.” You don’t have to be nice, you just have to be clear in a way that elicits understanding and action.

None of us will peel back our meaning on every piece of feedback, nor do we need to. Sometimes there is sufficient shared meaning. For example, your assistant may know exactly what you mean when you say you needed him to be more assertive in protecting your calendar this week. And other times, the feedback is just not important enough for the extra effort, such your colleague’s annoying question or comment about a meeting agenda for the sixth time.

The Bad News

As much as you do your part of clarifying what you mean, you cannot ensure that someone really knows what you are talking about. It’s the tricky part of words combined with a challenging reality that people listen through their background, values, standards, etc.

But, we can almost always do a better job than our first set of chosen words.

So, think ahead to some feedback that you want to offer this week. Or, stop yourself in the middle of a response and ask: What do I really mean here? Peel back your words for your own clarity and for your colleague’s or client’s benefit. Let me know what understanding and action you create!

Did you miss these post on the topic of feedback?

Making Feedback A Competitive Advantage

Feedback That Made Me Crazy