From the Same Side of the Table: Offering Feedback That's Actually Received

I just recently wrapped up my tenth read of the year called The Whole-Brain Child — a New York Times bestseller — written by two scientists, Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tine Payne Bryson. In short, their goal through this book was to "demystify the meltdowns and aggravation, explaining the new science of how a child’s brain is wired and how it matures."

While my intention was to read this as a parent and to focus my attention on approaching Olivia specifically, I found myself reading this through the lens of a leader as well and asking how I could apply these same principles in even a professional setting.

There was a lot to digest from the book, but I had one big takeaway that is changing how I approach people. It’s the ability to realize when someone has veered into an emotional extreme of either chaos or rigidity and having the presence of mind to connect with where they are and redirect them back to a place of balance.

Navigating the Waters Between Chaos and Rigidity

"Imagine a peaceful river running through the countryside. That’s your river of well-being. Whenever you’re in the water, peacefully floating along in your canoe, you feel like you’re generally in a good relationship with the world around you. You have a clear understanding of yourself, other people, and your life. You can be flexible and adjust when situations change. You’re stable and at peace. Sometimes, though, as you float along, you veer too close to one of the river’s two banks…One bank represents chaos, where you feel out of control. Instead of floating in the peaceful river, you are caught up in the pull of tumultuous rapids, and confusion and turmoil rule the day. You need to move away from the bank of chaos and get back into the gentle flow of the river. But don’t go too far, because the other bank presents its own dangers. It’s the bank of rigidity, which is the opposite of chaos. As opposed to being out of control, rigidity is when you are imposing control on everything and everyone around you. You become completely unwilling to adapt, compromise, or negotiate." 1

The author gives examples of each like when your child is so tunnel-visioned into their activity that they’re unwilling to share a toy (rigidity) or when they’re forced to share, they erupt into crying and start throwing things of out anger (chaos). This is what the author is referring to when he discusses veering to either side of the river bank.

I read this and couldn’t help but think that we all do this, even as adults. Our circumstances and reactions might be different and more subtle, but we all have moments where we don’t want to budge from the rules, or we become so overwhelmed emotionally that we start becoming irrational.

So, how to do we recognize when this is happening with someone and help move them back to a place of balance?

Connect and Redirect: Surfing Emotional Waves

In situations where we recognize extremes in emotions, our tendency as humans is to come in the opposite spirit. When someone is overreacting emotionally to something small, we want to come at them with logic and start to bullet point why their reactions and feelings don’t make sense. When someone is over-committing to the rules and doesn’t want to adapt in a given situation, we want to throw out emotional appeals as to why side-stepping the rules is the nobler thing to do in this instance. While these are perfectly normal, human responses, they’re counterproductive in these situations and actually drive people further into the extreme they’re already leaning into because it causes them to throw their defenses up.

The right thing to do in these circumstances is to first connect with where someone is at and then gently redirect them back into balance. The book gives wonderful parenting examples of how to do this, but I want to show you how applicable this is in a professional setting, so I’ll use my industry as an example.

Let’s say one of the designers on your team is designing a brand new website for a client. They’re designing according to the direction that the client has given them, but they’re also very aware of some of the latest trends and have some extra features they want to throw in there to see if the client will get on board. It’s finally time to present their design and the client isn’t too thrilled about the extra features. They appreciate the suggestions, but it’s simply not the direction they want to go.

After the meeting, the designer is visibly upset, mumbling under their breath that the client is ridiculous and doesn’t know good design. Obviously, they are taking the criticism personally and they've veered into irrationality. We have to be careful in these situations when we recognize someone is at an extreme because it can sometimes drive us to the exact opposite extreme, and now you just have two people who are talking at each other defensively and getting nowhere.

You have to remain emotionally stable in that moment and find a way to connect with where the person is before offering feedback that redirects them (or even reprimands, if necessary).

One of my favorite authors Brené Brown has a powerful quote regarding feedback:

"I know I’m ready to give feedback when...I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you.” 2

It’s crucial to connect with the heart of the person first. And the connecting part of this technique should not be confused with validating bad behavior. That is absolutely not the goal. It is meant to be a disarming mechanism — to encourage your listener to take down their defenses so that when you’re ready to redirect, you can do so fruitfully and successfully.

You might say to the designer, “I know it really sucks when you put so much time and effort into designing something special for the client and it seems like they didn’t see the value of it. Personally, I love those features you added. They look really great and those were very creative ideas.” Connect.

“However, we have to remember that, ultimately, this is the client’s design, not ours. We’re designing first and foremost for their needs not for what we think is cool and trendy right now. They are paying us for a service and they should get exactly what they are looking for at the end of it. The good news is that we have a bunch of other design work in the pipeline and some of those clients may want to utilize some of these more creative features. How about on those next creative calls with the client, we make those suggestions up front before we spend a lot of time in design to see if they would want to incorporate those?” Redirect.

Not only have you brought balance and rationale back to this person, but you’ve also managed to build trust because you didn’t just squash all of their emotions with facts and logic and move on. Had you done so, you might have created a rigid culture where that designer never tried anything new and creative again for fear it would be treated flippantly. Instead, you took the extra time to say that they matter — that you care about their heart and their contribution — and then candidly told them what the right, professional response was. It takes so much less time to just bulldoze irrationality and move on to the next task when you’re busy, but taking the extra time to build trust creates loyalties with people. Now you not only have someone who will continue to contribute great work, but they’ll slowly start to receive criticism and feedback with composure.

Sometimes it’s hard not to get pulled right under the waves with others who are being extreme, but as leaders, we have to remain stable and non-reactive. Our goal is to help people be successful — clients and coworkers alike. We have to set the tone and standard for professionalism, while also being willing to take a seat on the same side of the table and show that we care.

Works Cited:

  1. Siegel, Daniel J., and Tina Payne Bryson. The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Delacorte Press, 2011. Print.

  2. Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Avery, 2012. Print.