empowering feedback

How to Give Empowering Feedback

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou

Thanks for reading this week’s newsletter. It follows directly from the last two editions, where we examined how to create trust. Today we look deeper at what it means to empower another person.

Although you and I often say that we’re different at work than at home, in truth, we’re the same person. Therefore, what we’re looking at this week are skills that we can use whenever and wherever we want to give someone feedback that could benefit them.

Let’s consider the first case. If you’re a parent, you’ve undoubtedly experienced something like the following:

Janet: I love my son Greg. He’s among the kindest, most reliable, and most creative people I’ve ever known. But he does something that frustrates me over and over again. He’s 17. He hangs out with a group of friends every Saturday night. We agree that he’ll be home no later than 11 pm.  He rarely comes home on time. Sometimes it’s midnight before he “sneaks” in, trying not to wake me up. But look, I’m a mom. I always know when he’s late, even when I’m upstairs reading. I hear him. He promises to come in at the agreed time whenever I talk to him about this. But it doesn’t work.  I don’t know what to do. I worry about him. He’s a good person. I don’t want to see him involved in something dangerous. But I start lecturing him about my worries, knowing I’m not getting through to him.

Mitch: Keith is one of the company’s most valuable employees. He’s efficient, loyal, and trustworthy. Only one problem: he doesn’t spell check his emails, proposals, or just about anything else he produces. It might seem small, but we’ve been held up numerous times because someone else spotted two or three errors in a document he was about to send to a prospective client. It’s beginning to frustrate me to have to tell him, over and over again, to get a spellcheck program to edit his documents automatically.

In both cases above, nobody is experiencing a win. The mother and her son are both frustrated. No one is empowered to do anything but continue to do what they’ve always done. The same goes for Mitch and his employee Keith.

When we repeat the same behavior over and over again, it turns into a habit. It is often a behavior pattern that is hard to give up. In both examples, each person is acting predictably to a frustrating situation for both of them. They’ve developed a habit of reacting similarly to a predictable conversation. Giving empowering feedback can produce different results.

The dictionary defines empowerment as ”encouraging and supporting someone’s ability to do something.” The basic definition of empowerment is: “to cause to be powerful.” Therefore, we can see that feedback under these conditions can support people in breaking through a habit pattern by shifting their focus from the predictable “What’s wrong with my behavior?” to  “How could a new focus give me the power to demonstrate my true strengths?”

Our last article reviewed viewpoints that can change how you speak to someone when focusing on them. This week we’ll look more specifically at using  those viewpoints when you want to give someone empowering feedback.

This is what happened to Janet and her son Greg:

Janet: “I decided to focus on giving Greg empowering feedback about his coming late. I focused on the five points you showed me. I told him, ‘Greg, you are one of the kindest, most creative people I know. And you are so reliable in many areas. When you come home late, you’re not acting like what I know to be true about you.’  I stopped at that point and let the silence give him time for reflection. He smiled and hugged me.  ‘You’re right, Mom. I know what you mean. I promise to come home at 11 pm, just like you and I agreed at the beginning.’ He’s been coming home on time now.  There’s no tension between the two of us. Yes, one or two times, he came home 15 minutes late. He course-corrected, and I acknowledged him.  That’s the whole point, isn’t it? And now, I feel empowered as someone who can give feedback that makes a difference in our relationship.

Mitch: “OK, so I focused on those five qualities that describe all of us. I brought Greg into the office and sat him down. He looked nervous like he thought he’d hear another rant on how his spellcheck situation frustrates me. Instead, I focused on those five statements. This is how it went:

Me: Greg, you’re among the most efficient, loyal, and trustworthy people I know.

Greg: You’re buttering me up for something. C’mon, give it to me straight.” (He leans back in the chair, looking uncomfortable.)

Me: “No, I mean it. You always show this with the amount of work you get done and how much you support what we do here.”

Greg: Why are you telling me this now?”

Me: “I want to see you shine here.”

Greg: “OK. (By this time, he’s starting to relax.) So, then, what’s up?”

Me:  “ It’s about the spellcheck situation. Every time you send me a document with misspelled words, you don’t show up like the intelligent, creative guy you are. You’re too important to the business to have these points that distract people from recognizing the critical role you play here. Each misspelled word is like a minus sign. And that’s not you!”

Greg: “OK. I’ll get it set up on my two computers. I see what you’re saying. And thanks for helping me see that I’m bigger than those stupid misspelled words. It’s embarrassing when you put it the way you did. But it’s the truth.” (He smiles, visibly relieved.)

Mitch: And that’s exactly what he did. The next day he proudly showed me the program he had installed. There have been no misspelled words since! Now, every time we see each other, we feel no tension. It’s easy to talk.

Here are the five points we looked at last week that describe who we all are. At this level, everyone is the same. We all want to be recognized as someone with something to contribute to the world. The size of our world doesn’t matter. What does matter is that other people in it know who we are and that the recognition is mutual.

Here are those five points again:

  1. This person is a human being, just like you.
  2. They deserve your support to be successful and make the contributions to life that are most important to them.
  3. They have goals and wishes, and they want to be successful.
  4. They can come up with their answers, especially in the presence of someone focused on them with undivided attention.
  5. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

How would it affect the quality of your communication with others if you practice focusing on who they are? It could affect how they feel around you. They might see you as someone who genuinely cares about their growth and development. In short, they may feel great when they’re around you!

Please try the above. I know you’ll find your way into having more empowering conversations.

See you next time!

P.S. I suppose you’ve read about servant leaders, emotionally Intelligent leaders, and benevolent leaders. In that case, you’ve undoubtedly experienced a “sea change” from the original definition of leaders who employ the “top-down” leadership role, relying upon their power and authority to run the business. The newer viewpoint considers how leaders can empower those they lead to have fulfilling lives. Empowering feedback goes a long way to help that possibility become a reality.

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