Second Practice: Developing Your Comfort Level with Feedback

For more context on this posting, please see:

The Practice of Leadership
Eight Leadership Practices
First Practice: Knowing Your Leadership Edge
Third Practice: Caring for Self
Fourth Practice: Leadership and Influence
Fifth Practice: Discussing Undiscussables
Sixth Practice: On Collaborating
Seventh Practice: Personal Integrity
Eighth Practice: Spiritual Perspective

I believe we are really, deeply confused about “feedback.” In some organizational systems it just means “negative feedback.” At its worst, feedback becomes a kind of bludgeon representing background thoughts, feelings, and attitudes toward a person that are suddenly brought to light in a tense confrontation. It can stand for private conversations that are now “presented” to someone who may or may not have been aware of the tensions around them.

As leaders, we vastly compound this problem when we fantasize that there is a way to share such negatively framed information without creating defensiveness — so that others “get it” without causing too much pain to them or too much guilt for us.

This is as true for up-the-system feedback to formal leaders of organizations, as it is with peers and with down-the-hierarchy feedback, such as performance appraisals. We vacillate, one moment too hard, one moment too weak, and at the end of the day, no matter how we handled it, it can feel like a dump. Why is this?

I don’t believe it is because we are bad people or “unaccountable,” are tyrants or wimps. I believe it has much more to do with how well we have convinced ourselves as a culture that it is possible to talk about problems without talking about people and relationships, without talking about us. We are faced with a major illusion embedded in American business environments. And this has left us with a primitive culture when it comes to human conversation involving the person and involving our relationships. Under such conditions, it is no wonder that there is often so much conflict, tension, and pain associated with feedback. It easily becomes a battle in which our mutual blind spots fight it out over who among us has the greatest level of unconsciousness.


There is a poem by Bill Stafford called A Ritual to Read to Each Other. The first verse, which has become the credo of my life and work, goes like this:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

Bill Stafford is saying there is another way to see things. Suppose feedback, instead of being a grueling effort to change other people, became an entry point to talking about all the things that really matter to us as people. Suppose it became a vital tool in a common quest to find a shared and common star, and a way to avoid the follies of false gods. Then feedback might come to have a true and living purpose — which is to include others, collaborate with them, share in their world and invite them into connection with our own. And with the ultimate intention of learning how to talk about everything, including ourselves.

There is so much tragic, unspoken, emotional carnage going on out there. Suppose, for example, that I am a senior manager in an important, fast-paced, innovative organization, and I work for someone who I respect but who has certain sensitivities, particularly around issues of leadership “style.” I hear stories from well-meaning peers about how they have tried to bring up this or that piece of feedback or a possible change, only to be dismissed, criticized or feel a sense of lost personal credibility. If I am that manager and I see that I cannot talk openly with the leader about that person’s style then I may well end up feeling compromised in my ability to talk about many things, certainly including my own needs, feelings, perspectives, and creative (smart, risky) ideas. If I begin to believe that my voice might touch into the insecurities of the leader, no matter how founded or unfounded those insecurities are, I learn to keep quiet. The threat of tweaking the blind spot of someone with more power colors how I choose to behave — which is most often to become a smaller me.

Leaders who claim not to have such blind spots are dangerous. They tend to create worlds around them that shore up this illusion, insulating themselves from the truth. They wound their followers and yet do not understand why they are not getting what they want from other people.

Oh my friends, we have been set up for this dynamic by the science of American business management and our individualist traditions. I find it terribly ironic that where people are connecting and trying to connect with great genuineness is here on the net. And along with that genuineness, I have also come across so much anger, self-criticism, bitterness, and blame. When we move into the topic of feedback, we easily become competing tribes (owners versus customers, powerless versus powerful, individualists versus community-minded, people who “get it,” people who don’t). Splintering versus connecting across the tension points.

So let me voice this premise — opposed as it is to all the fine human relations training you may have received: If I feel that I cannot talk to you about you, directly, and if I cannot talk about about me, directly, then there can be no real “us,” no “our star.” Under such conditions, the domain of our relationship may narrow to allow only a slim passage of competing ideas whose credibility depends on avoiding what is most sensitive and undiscussable — which is you, which is me. And right here we begin the awful dance of becoming politically smart and interpersonally unreal. We learn to communicate around each other, not with each other. Inevitably we talk in the background about the very things that should be part of the conversation. We talk about others to others we believe are safe without ever talking to the those who can do something about the problem.

So many examples flood me. A simple one: I talked with a manager last year who told me the head of her organization held weekly four-hour staff meetings. They were not conversations; they were monologues. Everyone was bored and restless but no one was willing to talk with the administrator because he might “take it personally” and retaliate. Not being able to talk to him about him meant wasting huge amount of time and money. But that wasn’t the worst casualty. The real casualties were the souls of those who had learned to survive in such an unreal community.

So how do we begin to break down these walls that we have built from our “over-sensitive insensitivities?”

Here are the “nots:” Not with anger masquerading as “truth” about another person. Or with shouting. Or with tact tantamount to saying nothing. Not with condemnation of others or self. Not with clever ridicule in the background. Not any of this stuff that serves to release frustration, fear and judgment in emotionally dishonest ways, no matter how well that plays to the private and sympathetic crowd that meets in the parking lot — or over the net. And NOT from the place of our own cover-ups of the real hurt that we may truly feel.

We change all this through the practice of taking genuine, real-time interpersonal risks with other living human beings, whether or not we are particularly good at it and whether or not we are particularly successful. We take the risks anyway — as a matter of life, growth, and integrity. We take the risks to open up, share perspectives, do our best to convey from a place of positive intentions our observations and stay right there, even if there is a reaction.

I’m not talking at this moment about a practice for political or group action to change an institution (although I believe the principles are much the same). I’m talking here about personal action. And that can only happen effectively if I myself am okay with getting the feedback that might come back my way in the process. If I can’t receive any, than I’m personally in trouble — and so is society.

posterized seed pods

So the practice of developing comfort with feedback begins with my own efforts to be in community, to be okay receiving information about me, not just giving it out about you. If we can begin to practice asking for it and learn how to help others open to sharing it with us — not as some one-time program but as an ethic of our work as leaders, then I believe we can start learning what is important to know about in the way we offer our own feedback to others.

One lesson is this: They, whoever they are, will never go first. We must go first.

This is essential and it also creates a dilemma — because in American society some people are at a much greater disadvantage than others in the process. For example, people of color, or single moms who need their jobs more than us (relatively) wealthy folks who can trade companies fairly easily, or gay/lesbian people, or anyone from any group that has suffered traditional forms of American discrimination. For some people, no matter what their background, actively inviting feedback will be fine. For some, especially white males, it might even be a way to come out of invisible, unspoken levels of privilege. But for others, it is dangerous because of the prejudices that may be applied. The risks are simply too high.

Do you believe this? I encourage and invite you to get more information.

And the same is true, structurally, any time some people have more and some people have less power. I don’t believe it is the power itself, but the differences in power, that corrode relationships; that create cycles of mistrust.

So I would say it is up to us with the power to open the door. What is trickiest is how easily we focus on our own pain and the places of our powerlessness, rather than in the places we have more power than others do.

Some of the hardest and best feedback I have ever received was a couple of years ago from a multicultural audience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Leadership Institute. (Sorry, but I couldn’t find a direct link). A few people thought that my presentation points confirmed that I was one more typical white, middle-class, middle-aged man who “hadn’t done his work” on diversity issues. I struggled with this feedback mightily. I just hurt like hell because I didn’t feel like I was seen for my intentions. But it sure sensitized me to how I might be coming across and how much pain I could cause without even knowing it. And I thought to myself, how on earth will we ever overcome the diversity divides in our organizations, in our neighborhoods, in this country and around the world unless somebody — somebody perceived to have more power — is willing to begin learning how to receive feedback just like this? And if it’s going to be a two-way street, great, but somebody still has to go first — and then we can begin to talk.

I was helped greatly in the process by a caring mentor who took the time to notice the pain I was in, who helped me sort out why I received the feedback I did. I will love for the rest of my life the gift Seema Kapani gave me. And it is precisely this love that has changed the way I see both giving and receiving feedback. In our primitive relationships, we must learn to deal with the raw — which more than anything means dealing with our hurt. If you ask me, I’d say hurt is one of the strongest emotions in the world. But when I know how to deal with my own experience of hurt effectively — without cover-ups or “numbing out” — then I can begin to become effective in offering feedback to others. Not because I can eliminate the pain I might feel or might cause, but because I can know who I am when I want to talk with someone else about themselves. I can help hold the space for both of us. I can receive as much as give (in fact, I may not be able to tell the difference between the two). I do not have to either win or lose the exchange. I do not have to run away from it. I can stay right here, engaged with someone I don’t yet fully understand. And if I’m any good at it at all, then what might come across is that same level of care for another person I received one evening, late, from my mentor, Seema.


  • Anonymous wrote:

    Dan, please keep writing. This is eloquent and beautiful. Thanks for putting this out so clearly and directly. I’m honored to be able to work with someone as skilled as you are.


  • Anonymous wrote:

    This is the first post of yours that I have read, but I was struck by how candid and thoughtful it was. I plan to read everything else that you have written. I hope that a book is part of your plan.

  • I love this article.  I love it.

    I am left with this:  It may always take courage to listen to feedback and to find an authentic expression of feedback to others.  There is no guaranteed result.  And our willingness to risk is where we can grow and accomplish and contribute.  And leadership can emerge and flower.


  • Dennis, thank you for those words. I’ve linked you here.

  • Ah, kismet struck here too. In a large online list group I facilitate we have been living the communicate “around’ instead of “with” pattern. I just pointed the group to your posting. A drink of nice, cool water.

  • Thanks for this on an evening when I am struggling with a couple of tough interactions with people I care about enormously. We all aspire to genuine understanding, each of us as a gift to each other, but my goodness! How hard it is to do. I think you are right that it must be a practice in the sense that we may never master the skills but, with care, we become more adept daily. The degree to which getting the interaction right depends on me first getting my own attitude right…startles me.

  • Anonymous wrote:


    the feedback issue is something I just recently stumbled into, in another large group (over 900 professionals).

    I got bothered by a member’s approach, for several reasons.

    First she would offer negative criticism *without* a possible proposed solution. Therefore, even when accurate, the feedback would but hurt the receiver that was pointed fingers at, and treated more or less like an incompetent who didn’t know the best practices of the sector (and as I told her “When a person doesn’t use the best practices, that doesn’t mean s/he doesn’t know them by default. It could mean s/he doesn’t AGREE with them”).

    When I pointed out that people’s feelings have to be taken into account, I got charged to be a person only about “warm and fuzzy feelings” (thereby showing how much she didn’t want to know about me *grin*).

    Finally, when she posted political stuff and I took it off-list, she had the nerve of telling me she only discusses politics with friends.

    In short: she wants to be able to give feedback, irregardless, but the rest of the world can’t give feedback to her.

    How many persons are like that? MANY lol

    Anyhow, the point is, some people think that in order to be a leader everything you need is to want to be one, and that’s it.

    A dear long-term (15 yrs) friend of mine says about me: “You don’t just convince people to do what you want, you also convince them it was their idea”.

    Leaders should be like the spleen. Nobody should notice them when they are around, but everybody should see what happens when they aren’t there.

    Rosanna Tarsiero

  • Dear Dan,

    This post (and your whole blog) is so rich and evocative (including the beautiful photos that you fold in)…I had to let it sink in, and have been re-reading and turning it over in my mind/heart, finding so many points of learning & wondering. I know that my own first reaction to even the idea of feedback is to feel my defensiveness rise up, like a subtle armor, even when I am able to talk myself into staying present to whatever it is that’s offered up. And then when I read your sentence “Then feedback might come to have a true and living purpose — which is to include others, collaborate with them, share in their world and invite them into connection with our own” I remember that in living systems, that’s what feedback *is* for. Whether the feedback loop is entirely contained within our own organism, or whether there’s a part of our environment in the loop too, it’s meant to be the world participating, “sharing in”, “connecting with”, itself, on purpose, usually in service of more life, continued life.

    Another of the many points that touched me was “One lesson is this: They, whoever they are, will never go first. We must go first.” I am in the midst of preparing for a class next term in which the final project is done with a partner, and I ask the students to do both a self-assessment of how helpful they were to their partner and an assessment of how their partner worked with them. Last year I discovered that hardly any of the students thought to, or opted to, ask their partner for feedback as they went along, and so they often didn’t really know how they’d been. This year I am considering doing one class session just on feedback–offering and asking for suggestions for how to elicit it, how to receive it, how to offer & give it, with kindness & honesty for oneself and one’s partner. And now I think that it makes sense for me to do that by asking them to give me feedback, rather than only talking to them about it. And, I’d like to point them to this post of yours, too!

    Thanks very much for these wonderful articles. Another commentor mentioned their hope that your writings will turn into a book, and I add my wish to theirs!

    Christy Lee-Engel

  • I feel deeply honored by the comments here. It’s hard to express my gratitude to you, who have taken a moment to share your ideas, your situations, and your thoughts. I have been working for a long time to HEAR you and to be heard, especially on this issue of feedback — which is the edge of our mutual breakthrough. Thank you so very much.

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