Feedback is a… “Process in which the effect or output of an action is returned (fed-back) to modify the next action” (link)
Feedback is information. In organisational settings, the giving and receiving of feedback is generally regarded as an essential management tool – implicitly underpinned by some form of quality judgement, with a view to improving the process, plan or person. Indeed, I have facilitated many workshops on “Giving and Receiving Feedback” as a leadership skill. There is no doubt this is an essential and valuable tool that can enable progress and learning – and enhance adaptation to current rapidly changing organisational environments.
When I work with coaches, as supervisor or mentor, they usually ask for feedback, and what they seem to want is for me to indicate where they are going wrong and where they are getting it right. I imagine they expect something like…“Sounds like that is really working” or “Hmm, how could that be better?” The sort of thing we could expect from our teachers at school. I confess I’m not entirely comfortable with that expectation. Am I the best judge of their effectiveness? Maybe not. Perhaps best to go to your clients for that kind of feedback dear coaches, by asking them….what’s working for you?…what could I be doing more of?…less of to support your learning?
So today I’m thinking about a different use of FEEDBACK.
What if feedback had another function, that of acknowledging what’s happening right here, right now - what I’m calling “witnessing feedback”. What if feedback was used as a way of simply confirming that something big is happening right here, right now – validating contributions, legitimising the feelings that are arising in the face of challenges? That certainly fits within my remit as supervisor or coach-mentor. And I would suggest also for the coach working with clients who are navigating disruptive organisational events.
I’m recalling times when I’ve been “Holding Space” * for folk going through tough times, personally or in their work setting. I’ve noticed that at very stressful times, often what’s needed for people to get through is simply for someone to say “I see that you are going through this tough time. I see how tough it is for you right now. You are not alone here.” For the leaders of teams, it could be as simple as stating the reality and adding “I see and appreciate your contribution”. This form of feedback is not about judging how well they are doing, it’s not about helping or fixing or advising or “modifying the next action”. (And I would suggest witnessing feedback is just as valuable when something great is happening – “wow, I see that you won that one!”) It’s just about witnessing - someone has noticed what is happening and is acknowledging the reality of now. Someone cares.
The time for critiquing and process improvement will arrive in due course – what worked, what didn’t, how could we do it differently next time. It’s when people are deeply in the process (the struggle?) that “witnessing feedback” may just provide the lift that’s needed to keep going, to gird up for the next big effort.
*Find Heather Plett’s remarkable blog on Holding Space here
PS. If you decide to experiment with these ideas, I would love to hear what happened.
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Sandy May is a Sydney based Executive Coach, Coach Mentor and Coach Supervisor, interested in uplifting the human spirit through meaningful dialogue and collaborative reflection.