A bit ago, I wrote a piece titled, If Only Someone Had Told Me, and in it I reference learning how to give and receive feedback. I promised a subsequent piece on the practice of feedback, so here it is.
I was reminded of the promise, because I spent several hours tonight preparing to give a talk on Improving Communication at a Financial Services company tomorrow, and the first concept in the workshop is an exploration of the differences between observation and evaluation. (If you haven't figured it out by now - I teach almost all of what you get in kinky contexts professionally).
Let me ensure that you remember something about me, gentle reader. I speak from my own experience. There are many ways to do a thing - or to have a conversation - and to give feedback. This is one that works for me, and it's one I use in many contexts. I use it to give and receive feedback from teaching peers. I use it to give feedback to my partners. I use it to give feedback to people who ask for it. Try it on. If it fits - great. If not, then put it back on the shelf.
Here are the essential steps for giving feedback:
- Get consent
- Use observational language
- Leave it be
First thing's first - consent. Nothing is quite as off-putting as someone saying "I have some feedback for you", and then going into an immediate diatribe. Feedback puts the receiver in an understandably defensive frame of mind. Timing is everything. You may have something to say, but if the person you are with isn't open to hearing it, then things will end right there, or you'll have some argument, or some other timesink.
Step 2 - Use Observational Language. Observational Language is concrete, specific, and about you and your experience. Observational language in this context would contain words that correspond to senses:
The way you construct your sentenes would be simple: Start with a sense, express what you experienced through that sense, and STOP as soon as the information is given.
There isn't a need for 'because', or 'however', or any other conjunction - not when giving feedback. When I work with other teachers, I might say something like "I saw you pacing" or "I felt rushed" or "I heard you say 'so'". If you heard several things, then you would give several 'hearing' sentences. If you felt many things, then you would give many feeling sentences.
Every time I teach this, someone will ask "What if the feeling is more of an emotion?" Share it. "I felt afraid", or "I felt excited", or "I felt horny" -all good. "I felt you could have ___________" - not so good.
Do you see the distinction here?
In the context of a scene, you might give feedback thusly:
"I felt tight restraints on my wrists"
"I felt cold"
"I heard heavy metal music"
"I heard the crack of the whip"
"I felt light strikes"
"I felt you behind me"
"I saw you leave the room"
"I tasted blood"
"I smelled body odor"
"I tasted your mouth on mine"
Observational language gives the person receiving feedback something extremely useful - a view into your experience. Perhaps the person you played with thought the strikes were landing solidly and with a lot of force. By saying "I felt light strikes", you are letting the person know that in your experience the strikes weren't heavy. This is a lot less off-putting than hearing "You didn't hit me hard enough"....
And let me be clear - observational language in this context isn't entirely quantitative. What constitutes body odor? How cold is cold? I'm aware of that, and you would be well-served to be aware of that, too.
You might also notice that 'thinking' language is off the table in this model. Thinking language might be something like "I thought you had body odor" - that's an evaluation disguised as an observation, and it is out of place here. It has a place elsewhere. I assure you.
Step 3 - let it be. That means you offer feedback in a similar way as you might offer a dish at a potluck - put it out to be taken - or not. Feedback is about you - it isn't about them - even if they asked for it.
I am making a specific and intentional distinction between giving feedback and evaluating something. The two are so often conflated, but they are not synonyms in my world. Feedback is simply stating one's experiences, from one's perspective, in a way that is observational. Evaluation is about the editorial pieces - what you liked, what you didn't like, etc...
That said, evaluation, like feedback, is about the person giving it - not the person receiving it. It's a way of getting a view into the inner critic within a person. Oh, and just so we're clear here? We all have an inner critic.
Presenters - when we get evaluations from students, we are learning about the people who attend our classes. If you get consistent evaluations saying that you're difficult to hear, then guess what? You might just need to speak up. If you get consistent evaluations that you aren't teaching, but are rather performing, then guess what? You just may be. (FTR - performing is a highly effective way of being in front of a room. I went into a fair level of detail about it here.)
Learning how to give feedback in the model I outlined here is a first and very important step in learning how to manage conflict - how to cultivate compassion in your communication - and how to ask for and get what you want. Seriously.
For now - today - I mostly want you to grok feedback as the expression of personal observations. If you are interested in this, you might start practicing observing and sharing observations with someone.
"I saw you in a red sweater"
"I tasted vegetable curry"
"I tasted spicy-hot food"
Notice how sharing an experience in this way opens things up - keeps the person getting the data on the same side of the table as you, and illustrates what we all know and often forget "your perspective is true to your experience, but it isn't necessarily the Truth".
Keep an eye out for a future post on the evaluation piece I know so many of you are chomping at the bit to explore.