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14 Tips for Mastering “Crucial Conversations”

Leaders should be exceptional at giving and receiving feedback. The problem is, leaders aren’t trained or coached in how to do it. It is one of those areas, though essential to the role, that is just assumed and expected. Here are 14 observations on feedback from my experience as a consultant and Head of School:

Resisting Feedback

  1. Feedback is too narrowly framed around fault finding. That is why it is generally thought of as negative, painful, and something to be endured in schools. Expanding the conversation around why we do it is critical. Why do we do it? To grow in wisdom. We receive feedback because we cannot grow in wisdom without listening to and learning from people who are wiser than we are. We give feedback to help others become wise. Start with why.
  2. Giving and receiving feedback must be normalized in your culture (at all levels). At my school, we called it “warm and cool feedback.” Give your people a why and then give them the tools and language to do it well.
  3. Americans are bad at feedback. Generally speaking, so are Christians. We fumble all over ourselves, qualifying everything and apologizing profusely; we over talk and fragilize people. We have to work on it in order to be effective. Prioritizing feedback should be critical to your aim as a learning community.

Understanding the Nature of Feedback

  1. Giving and receiving feedback is tied to a host of other skills and dispositions we are not trained in (such as really careful, thoughtful listening). People bring suitcases full of assumptions and experiences into conflict and conversations about their character and performance. Let’s be patient and empathetic. The results you have in mind may take much longer than you think. However, that does not mean you have to tolerate poor performance. Sometimes we think we are being gracious when we really are being indecisive or fearful about what needs to be done.
  2. As it turns out, teachers engage in feedback every single day in their work with students. So, investing time to get it right will not be time wasted. In fact, being on the receiving side of feedback is very instructive and formative when it comes to giving it.
  3. Feedback is much more about relational wisdom than it is skill. Can the person hear what you are saying? Do they feel cared for, understood, and part of the process? Are you listening and adapting as you discern what is happening in the conversation?
  4. As mentioned above, we talk too much when it’s time to give feedback. We take too long to say what needs to be said. That makes it confusing for someone to walk away with clarity – the one thing they need to actually improve. In delivering feedback, you talk too much because you’re uncomfortable, not because you are profound. Pay attention to what is happening in your body when you are in these situations so you are not overly influenced by emotions. Learn to manage what is going on so you can focus on the right things, not just making yourself or the other person feel less awkward.
  5. You may be one of those tell-it-like-it-is people who congratulate themselves for saying what no one else will. These folks are equally uncomfortable with conflict, they just displace the discomfort with vibrato instead of sheepishness. People in this category come across as obnoxious and emotionally tone deaf to others. Such a leader is the last person anyone wants to confront, only reinforcing their false beliefs.
  6. What you believe about people in general (and the person you are giving feedback to specifically), has a profound influence on how truly invested you are in their growth. For example, Maxwell says, “believing the best in people usually brings the best out of people.” But, some of us have a hard time “believing the best in people.” We only see the things we are concerned about and then we look for those things to show up.

Listen, Listen, Listen

  1. More on listening – one man said, “Being heard is so close to being loved, that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” Listening will give you almost everything you need to provide meaningful feedback and to help the person invest in their own growth. “Caring for people must precede confronting people.” (Maxwell).
  2. Likely, the thing keeping you from being proficient at feedback has nothing to do with feedback itself. If you’ve been in a situation where feedback has gone wrong, which is all of us, you are probably overcorrecting. Just look at your own parenting. There are many character-related issues embedded in feedback. Knowing yourself well will keep you and others from blind spots.

Becoming a Student of Feedback

  1. Ask yourself hard questions: Do I avoid feedback? How do I deflect it? Do I know why? When are the times it has gone well? Why? Be a student of feedback.
  2. Like everything else, you need a feedback loop about your feedback skills. After you do it, ask for honest input. Model how you want the person to receive feedback as you listen.
  3. Is feedback helpful if 80% of it is inaccurate? Can you grow from the 20%? Or, if 80% is delivered with a bad tone? Yes, if you have the maturity and humility to receive it.

Most of the areas in which you want to see growth are anchored in one’s character, not merely competence. Seek wisdom to become exceptional at feedback.

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