Feeling Feedback

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Feelings are trailheads that lead to insight.

When I speak about the role of feelings in feedback, I typically see a few folks roll their eyes with a vibe of “Here comes some fluffy nonsense.” To address that ahead of time, I now usually preface with something like… “Now this next topic may cause a few of you to roll your eyes.”

In the past, this reaction would frustrate me a bit. As an educator, I’m accustomed to working with grad students who are primarily hungry to learn and open to new ways of learning. But something seems to happen in the corporate setting, where the hunger to learn often remains, but the expansive openness to ways of learning seems to contract. I have thoughts on the myriad potential reasons for this, but I’ll save those for another day.

A person in full gladiator gear walks through traditional office cubicles.
Source: Cameron Conaway. Image created using Magic Media by Canva

In the past, I’ve responded to this resistance like some kind of corporate gladiator, layering myself with all the armor (data and academic studies) I could find. It took a while for me to realize that, while data is certainly good to have, leading with it intellectually was centering the need to appease the audience’s preferred way of learning rather than helping them break through to a new level. Plus, a gladiator too heavily armored can’t move well, and I certainly felt that.

Now, I see those eye rolls as material. The good stuff. The eye roll is a response to a feeling. And feelings, if held without judgment and felt, can be our teachers.

“Feelings are trailheads that lead to insight.”

In my experience, we can’t improve how we give and receive feedback unless we build emotional intelligence, learning to tap into what Dr. Eugene Gendlin calls the “felt sense.”

“You might have a distinct and intense feeling in relation to some problem, and usually the same one over and over. Especially if you have had that feeling many times, there is little point in having it over again, one more time. The felt sense is the broader, at first unclear, unrecognizable discomfort, which the whole problem (all that) makes in your body. To let it form, you have to stand back a little from the familiar emotion. The felt sense is wider, less intense, easier to have, and much more broadly inclusive. It is how your body carries the whole problem.”

—Dr. Eugene Gendlin

After all, study after study shows that we fail to give effective feedback (or refuse to give constructive feedback at all) because of our underlying feelings of anxiety and fear. And, as all feedback receivers and feedback processors can attest, feedback is challenging for similar reasons. The result? Both parties become defensive, adding whatever armor they think they need to protect themselves.

So it goes with human communications, and so it goes, therefore, with feedback.

Here’s an invitation for the next time you are preparing to give constructive feedback. View this map of emotions ahead of time and take two steps.

A wheel listing the many types of emotions
Sydtomcat, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

First, as they say, secure your own mask. How do you feel when you imagine delivering this feedback? Hold those feelings gently and with a sense of wonder. What thoughts may have led to them? Are those thoughts truths or an imagined inner narrative? When you have those thoughts, are you in the present matter or preparing to defend yourself for an imagined future?

Much of our suffering as individuals is not about real things that are happening but about imagined things that may happen. As such, we have much control over that, but we have to choose to be in control.

Second, ask yourself: How do you want the feedback receiver to feel after you’ve delivered the feedback? Do you think the constructive feedback you are about to offer will more likely be adopted and set the recipient on a growth path if, after they receive it, they feel, say, Inspired and Respected, or if they feel Exposed and Frustrated? How can you frame the feedback in a way that may help bring forth the emotions you hope for?

Not all, not nearly all, of what they may feel in a feedback session is under your control, but you do play a role here, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

I’ve struggled to give feedback due to feelings of anxiety, heartbreak, guilt, and incompetency.

I’ve struggled to receive feedback due to feelings of confusion, overwhelm, and embarrassment.

I’ve struggled to process feedback due to feelings of loneliness, self-doubt, and nervousness.

And yet, feedback is:

  1. How I’ve improved in anything, ever
  2. How employees and organizations improve


Before you go…

  • Check out the Atlas of Emotions, a collaboration between the Dalai Lama and emotion scientist Dr. Paul Ekman, to improve your understanding of emotions