Saturday, December 11, 2010

Receiving Feedback as Spiritual Practice

by Miki Kashtan

This week I finished teaching a 5-session phone class called Feedback without Criticism. The first 4 sessions were about giving feedback, and last night’s session was about receiving feedback. After last night’s session I have so much compassion for the untold millions who are regularly on the receiving end of both formal and unsolicited feedback which is so hard for them to receive. As a continuation to earlier posts on the topic of feedback, today I want to take a closer look at the role of self-acceptance in receiving feedback, as well as offer a few more tips to those who routinely provide feedback.

Conditional Self-Acceptance
In preparation for the class, I asked participants to read Overcoming Defensiveness, my earlier blog piece about the challenges of receiving feedback, which highlights the role of self-acceptance in being able to receive feedback effectively. With self-acceptance we are stronger, because our own view of ourselves is less dependent on what other people think or perceive about us. So it came as no surprise that people named the experience of someone catching them unprepared to give them critical feedback as being particularly painful. The deeper issue, as we learned together, is that very often our self-acceptance is conditional on being a very certain way. It’s as if we are telling ourselves: “I will accept myself for as long as I am always impeccable in how I do my work, or for as long as I always care about other people and the effect of my actions on the rest of the team members,” or whatever else you can insert there for yourself.

What would it mean to accept ourselves unconditionally, exactly the way we are? Imagine the freedom that can come from complete self-acceptance, without conditions, without having to be any particular way, without the pressure to be perfect. Imagine how much stronger we would become in facing whatever people say when we are not scrambling to hide the truth about ourselves. Working on accepting that which we don’t like in ourselves can reduce and ultimately eliminate the exhausting endless inner war in which so many of us live. With honest self-acceptance we come more fully into our place in the human fabric, alongside everyone else who’s also human, also glorious, also imperfect, also capable of making mistakes. We become less separate, and by extension more able to accept others, too.

How do we get there? By applying the core principle that whatever we do is an attempt to meet common human needs shared by all. Even malicious intent, however painful to acknowledge, results from some basic human need. Malicious intent arises when anyone is so caught in a desperate struggle to meet needs that they simply don’t see or experience any other way to proceed. Maybe it’s an expression of wanting to assert one’s existence in a situation of extreme powerlessness; maybe it’s an attempt to create justice (as violence expert James Gilligan demonstrates in his book on the topic); or maybe it’s an attempt to have one’s own pain understood in full. However unconscious these motivations may be, we can all understand them in others and in ourselves. The practice of self-acceptance is about identifying and connecting with the underlying needs that lead to any of our actions we are unhappy about, both at work and anywhere else. Doing this practice increases our self-acceptance and by extension our ability to make free and conscious choices about how to act.

Tips on Feedback Giving
Although harsh or critical feedback could potentially provide the gift of spiritual practice to the other person, providing feedback can be much more effective if we can provide it in a way that doesn’t require so much inner strength from the other person. I plan on writing a fuller piece about feedback giving in the future. For now, I wanted to share two specific and relevant tips. One is to ask, and mean it, whether our chosen time works for the other person instead of assuming that because we have something to say the other person is ready to hear it. The other is to do enough inner work before sharing feedback with another that we can truly imagine how much effort it would take of the other person to hear us. Then we can choose to express the feedback with complete honesty and yet with full care for the other person.

If you want to learn more about the art of providing feedback, you can still register retroactively to the 5-session Feedback without Criticism course I finished last week. If you want to learn more generally about using Nonviolent Communication in the workplace, you can get an MP3 of a class I taught on the topic a couple of years ago. Looking ahead, you may want to explore the MCR full yearlong program starting this coming May, and the MCR conference in March. If you are curious, you can get answers to all your questions in one of the informational calls coming up starting in January 2011.