The Space Between Feedback

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by Judy Brown

What makes a fire burn
is the space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood….

Psychologist Tara Brach shares this poem to highlight the importance of the spaces between. It has stuck with me for years, and it relates to our work on improving our relationship with constructive feedback.

We focus a lot on giving and receiving feedback around here, but the space between feedback is vital.

For feedback givers

We’ve talked about not becoming like the 21% of managers who don’t give any negative feedback, but it’s also important not to be like those managers (we don’t have research on this one) who provide negative feedback so constantly that it can be demoralizing.

Similarly, while I do not recommend the feedback sandwich, providing a steady stream of negative feedback without any positive feedback can leave feedback receivers feeling like you don’t see all parts of them. This approach can cause them to put less stock in your constructive feedback.

For feedback receivers

Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, once wrote:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The circumstances under which Viktor learned that lesson are horrifying and unimaginable for many of us. Still, millions have used his insight to improve their lives, and we can do the same as feedback receivers.

You can use space by literally asking for it after receiving feedback. And if you receive feedback when you didn’t expect it, leverage your feedback fallback phrase.

For feedback processors

If you’ve received challenging constructive feedback, space to process it is the only way forward. Here’s a video on that:

For feedback users

Ready to use the feedback you received? Fantastic. But how? Again, depending on the complexity, this will involve forming new habits and determining how and when to incorporate this new feedback into your workflow. Here’s a video on that as well:

Final thoughts on feedback and space

Our use of space depends on the situation and our level of feedback literacy. Sometimes, you may need to act on the feedback immediately because that’s the best path forward.

And keep in mind that we all come at this differently.

For example, while I don’t necessarily recommend this approach, check out how Andrew Bosworth, CTO of Meta, described to Lenny Rachitsky what it’s like to give Mark Zuckerberg feedback. Summary below by Ana Altchek:

“Meta’s CTO says that Mark Zuckerberg will often tell you you’re wrong if you offer feedback.

Then over the next few weeks, Zuckerberg will start to implement the changes.

The CTO said he finds the feedback loop satisfying, even if you have to take the long view on it.”


FTW Weekly Reflection

  • How would you describe your relationship with space and feedback? Why is this case? Is there any room for improvement? Why or why not?