Illustration of drowning hand making peace sign
№ 5

The magic potion: Feedback mixology (Part II)

Reading time 5 minutes read
Feedback Negroni Photo by Matheus Frade on Unsplash
My personal experimentation around my feedback style and how I ended up finding a way that lets me say what I want to say without hurting people's feelings

In the first part of this longer episode, I wrote about breaking up with the feedback sandwich as a tool, because for me it is ineffective, doesn't match my personality and promoted an understanding of feedback that I can’t relate to. So, the question that remains is: How do I give good feedback? From my point of view, the answer to this question should look different for every single one of us because we are different human beings and don’t talk like standardized robots (at least not yet). What works for me doesn’t need to work for everyone. There are people who can pull off being really critical, others feedback more like a teacher, and again others make you feel motivated and thrilled. In order to find an individual answer, I believe that three aspects need to be considered (this is not a prioritized order):

01 The it: The role of feedback within your practice, the intent of what you want to achieve with it
02 The me: Your personality, your communication style, your values - everything that makes your communication feel authentic and credible
03 The them: The needs and characteristics of the person you are giving the feedback to

When all parts are balanced, your feedback will become kind of like a really good drink. Each part is essential and has its own flavor, but only in the right delicate balance, it creates a delicious whole. The beautiful thing is that even if the ratio varies a bit day by day, it will stay recognizable - something others can identify as consistent communication but also something that lets you feel yourself. Like your personal signature drink.

I don't want it to be a spritz, I want my feedback to be a negroni.

And after a lot of mixing, experimenting and tasting, I have found mine. Matching my personality and my leadership style, I don’t want my feedback to be watered down or some kind of a spritz, I want it to be negroni. Pure, rich, and clear - the essence of flavor. Made up of three main ingredients that are the answers to the three questions above.

01 The it

The first time I truly understood what feedback can be, was in my training with the Kaospilots. This experience has answered sooo many questions for me (and meanwhile changed my life - not kidding.)¹ Without wanting to spill too much or bore you with a very personal experience: imagine being sat on a chair, having to sit in the middle of a room and having to receive the most sincere feedback from ca. 15 people who have gotten to know you during 2 intense days. It was the most terrifying experience and the most beautiful 30 minutes of my life at the same time. Also, it became clear to me that this is the feedback I want in my life and that is something completely different to the stuff I had known before. I believe feedback is something beyond good and bad. It is not a compliment. Not some nice pat on the back after a great performance. It is much more profound. It’s about recognizing the other person and discovering something that could be. Something the other person didn’t know about themselves. Something that is not yet, but that could be. A challenging insight. So, I decided that the feedback I want to give is that of a clear distillation of potential (The gin). In that way, it challenges both the giver and the receiver. The receiver, because it requires them to reflect and grow. The giver, because in order to give this challenging insight, you need to look deeply. You can’t just comment on the first superficial thing you notice.

02 The me

The people around me will smile at this one because it is so visible in my communication style that it’s hard to miss: I’m very direct and in a room full of people I’m usually the one who spills what everybody is thinking but no-one dares to say. That’s because I'm a person who values honesty and authenticity above everything else. It's my default, it brings out the best and worst in me, it’s my magic, but also my cryptonite. I value the truth higher than making people feel good in the moment. I believe that saying what I really think is essential because I'm talking to adults. What’s important is that my honesty always comes from a place of caring and giving others the space to learn, not from a place of being extra critical or even spiteful. For me, honesty is the only way to have sincere relationships based on trust and respect - conversations that can be the starter for meaningful growth. Obviously, this part is the bitter. ;)

03 The them

Still, people like to be told nice things. And we’re living in a business world that increasingly wraps us all into cotton, sometimes even infantilizes us. So, my combination of being both challenging and very candid may come across a very strong dose for people. Once in a while, people really struggled with digesting what I was saying and the message was just too bitter. Shit! (Nice try though) What to do? On the one hand I wanted to make my feedback easier to accept, but on the other hand I really don’t want to lose the honesty. I tried out a lot, but it never really felt right until one day I had a really banal observation. I noticed that I never made explicit my intent, the reason why I was being honest in the first place. I never said out loud: I’m sharing critical/constructive feedback with you, because I want the best for you, because I care, because I believe that you have all what it takes to be even better than you already are. I'm seeing that you are doing such a good job that you can take this info to make you exceptionally great at it. These reasons might be obvious to me because it’s simply the truth, but it might not be obvious to all others. They could think for example that I’m being critical because I don’t believe in them. Or because I compare them to others. Or because I don’t want to share responsibility with them. Or because I want to promote somebody else. Thousands of reasons that sound ridiculously to me but that might be the assumption of someone who doesn’t know me that well. Or whose mind is simply somewhere else. So whenever I’m handing out my challenging, candid feedback nowadays, I point out before, why I’m being honest and clear about things. I don’t have any scientific proof for it, but it’s made a huge difference in how people have reacted to it. It’s so banal and so dead simple that I’ve never thought about doing it before and that still makes me hesitate to share it as a tip. But here it is. The most banal tool you’ll ever see 😀 It has become the third essential of my feedback drink and the part that varies the most - depending on who I talk to: the vermouth. Makes the bitter sweet.

Complexity (gin) + Candor (bitter) + Care (Vermouth) = Feedback Negroni

On good days, when I have found the optimal balance, my feedback drink equals a good negroni. Complex, pure, heavy but sweet at the end. There are still some people who don’t like that drink - but that’s ok. Maybe it’s not really the right fit between them and me and a fellow barkeeper colleague needs to take over here. Or maybe we have to come up together with a compromise drink just for them. But it will never as good as my signature ;) Now, I’m very curious about what your signature drinks are? Is it an exhilarating spritz, a bubbly champagne, a very transparent martini or a comforting whiskey? Or maybe also just some flavored water or a very sweet lemonade. As long as you do it consciously and it’s balanced, it’s a good one. The following questions may help you find your ideal recipe. If you found it, feel free to share it with me and we’ll build a menu <3

¹ I probably have to do this influencer disclaimer thing now where I have to say that I wasn’t paid for this advertisement of Kaospilots’s services but I will just recommend it for free, because this learning experience has had such a profound impact on how I see myself, leadership and life in general. It’s very rare that I feel understood in my deepest beliefs and in this training I was. It was simply magic. Thanks again, Paul and David.

Illustration take away box

Key Takeaways

  • Feedback needs to match three things to be effective and feel right. It needs to fit your understanding of what feedback should be and your intent in what to use it for, it needs to match your personality and it needs to match the person you give it to
  • Ask yourself: What is feedback to you? What effect do you want your feedback to have and what role should it play in your practice? Do you want it to have a punch, do you like to be challenging or sweet? Do you want it to be motivating or confirming?
  • Ask yourself: How do you communicate normally and how can you translate this into your feedback style? What are important values that fuel your communications?
  • Try the following: Give a feedback that feels totally naturally too you without overthinking it, just how you would intuitively do it. What might be too much about it, ask a trusted person which flavor is too strong (too direct, too soft, too vague, too complex, too paedagogic ) What can you add so that it's a well-balanced recipe?
  • Remember: Make your intention explicit. It makes it much easier for the other person to understand and contextualise what you're saying and they'll secretly or openly love you for this clarity.