Difficult Conversations and why feedback sucks

Difficult Conversations and why feedback sucks

Management gurus love the phrase “feedback is a gift.” After all, when we take critical feedback from others we improve, develop new skills, and learn about our blindspots. But something about that aphorism rings hollow. We know about this gift, yet approach feedback conversations with anxiety. Once we’re having the conversation, our palms get sweaty and our heart rate increases. Then, post-conversation we’re more likely to say “Screw that person, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

So why does feedback suck so much?

I sent a user survey to the 15,000 person RadReads community and was pumped to go through the feedback. But then something funny happened. I didn’t want to open the file with the results. I know that the community is kind, engaging and wonderful – but I knew from creating the survey that I had specifically asked for critical feedback. And I was bracing to take it all in.

Like I said, y’all are a kind bunch – and the group of people willing to fill out a survey tends to positively select. But I’d be lying if I didn’t feel agitated as I read things like “the author is too liberal for my taste,” “there are not enough diverse voices,” “I spot typos,” and one of my favorites “Drink a glass of water before you record your podcast.”

Difficult Conversations are Everywhere

Why is receiving this “gift” so difficult? My favorite “management books” are the ones that secretly tell life lessons. And sheds a light on the paradox of feedback. According to the authors, all difficult conversations consist of three components: a facts, feelings, and identity conversation. Let’s evaluate each part.

The 3 Types of Difficult Conversations

The What Happened Conversation is an acknowledgment that the absolute truth is elusive in a difficult conversation. The best example of this is from the movie Annie Hall. “We never have sex,” complains Alvie Singer. His girlfriend retorts, “We’re constantly having sex.” And then the therapist asks “How often do you have sex?” and they reply in unison “Three times a week!”

The Feelings Conversation is the belief that we’re capable of compartmentalizing our feelings during these difficult conversations. It’s that tenuous approach that you can “thread the needle” in a difficult conversation and deliver facts while leaving emotions untouched. And it never works. But alas, “Feelings are not some noisy byproduct of engaging in difficult talk, they are an integral part of the conflict.”

The third component is where things get particularly spicy: Difficult conversations are at their core uncomfortable questions about Identity. The reason we hate receiving feedback is that it forces us to look inwards and do some uncomfortable introspection. The Identity Conversation about “who we are and how we see ourselves. How does what happened affect my self-esteem, my self-image, my sense of who I am in the world? What impact will it have on my future? What self-doubts do I harbor?” The book uses a few real-life examples to bring this point home:

The hesitation about complaining to a neighbor about their barking dog:

“It may be that growing up in a small town gave you a strong self-image as a friendly person and good neighbor, so you are uncomfortable with the possibility that your neighbors might see you as aggressive or as a troublemaker.”

Asking for a raise:

“What if you get turned down? In fact, what if your boss gives you good reasons for turning you down? What will that do to your self-image as a competent and respected employee? Ostensibly the subject is money, but what’s really making you sweat is that your self-image is on the line.”

Rejecting the hard work of a subordinate:

“I’m not the kind of person who lets people down and crushes enthusiasm. I’m the person people respect for finding a way to do it, not for shutting the door.” Your self-image as a person who helps others get things done butts up against the reality that you are going to be saying no. If you’re no longer the hero, will people see you as the villain?

Putting these Convos to the Test

Frameworks are powerful because they provide objectivity around messy topics. In fact, this framework has made its way into an unlikely place: our marriage. Last week, Lisa and I found ourselves in a passionate debate about #MeToo. While we’re strongly on the same side, the intensity (and speed) of this movement has all the hallmarks of a Difficult Conversation.

Without belaboring the details, I was frustrating her with my views on due process and being tried in the court of public opinion – and if/how the accused could defend themselves. The conversation wasn’t going anywhere and we were digging our heels wrt to our own positions.

Yes, Our Relationship is Full of Difficult Conversations

Hesitant to introduce a “framework” into a heated conversation, I flat out asked, “Are we really debating #MeToo or is anything about this conversation about identity?” It turns out the answer had to do with how I approach rules. As a second generation child of immigrants, I tend to over-index on rules and authority: I’m hesitant to jaywalk, follow our apartment building’s protocols to a T, and set my cruise control on the highway at 5 mph above the speed limit. Lisa then tells me that what she’s afraid of is that if our family ever got into a precarious situation, my rules-based nature might inhibit me from doing everything in my power (including breaking rules) to protect them. Yet every parent emphatically knows how they’d react in such a situation.

Think about that. A conversation between two Lefties about a social movement was really about the reassurance a primal fear: family survival. And that, my friends, is why Difficult Conversations are a gift.