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We all make mistakes. It's a part of being human, but when those mistakes create harmful impacts, feedback becomes necessary. Empathetic feedback isn’t just another form of daily conversation that takes place in the workplace or at home. Instead, it’s a specific type of feedback intended to create awareness around behaviors, attitudes or patterns that may be problematic.
Understanding Cause and Effect
While the idea of self awareness when we’ve done something wrong and course correction may seem straightforward, our lived reality tells a different story. We unfortunately exist in a punitive society, one where we've been conditioned to fear the consequences of stepping outside societal norms. Mistakes – whether at home, in the office or anywhere else – often lead to punishment and can create an atmosphere of isolation, fear and anxiety.
This punitive approach is far from ideal and a fear of mistakes can often lead to a fear of trying new things. Instead, it’s important to establish psychological safety, which involves treating people fairly and with dignity regardless of their mistakes. Psychological safety is essential for curiosity, trust, growth and learning. Todd Kashdan, a positive psychologist and author, maintains that psychological safety and feelings of belonging are the two key ingredients needed for innovation.
Belonging is a nuanced concept. Belonging means being heard, feeling respected, and feeling safe to express yourself without fear of disapproval. Here at Lumia, both in our company and in our coach training program, we emphasize belonging – especially with respect and dignity. We recognize that mistakes and uncomfortable situations are inevitable when human beings work together. We’ve built a non-punitive environment that encourages everyone to face discomfort and take accountability for our actions, which in turn promotes growth and learning.
Neurobiology Plays a Role in Feedback
Giving and receiving feedback can be challenging and our brain structure is a big reason why.
Our most primitive part, the reptilian complex, contains our instincts and drives our binary thinking. It controls our automatic, quick responses, also known as “System 1 Thinking”. This part of our brain is not particularly useful in most of modern life, but it still dominates our response system and kicks in automatically in what it considers to be threatening situations.
The limbic system, where our emotions are stored, is our emotional headquarters and works similarly to the reptilian complex.
Finally, the newest part, the neo-cortex, allows for slower, more reflective “System 2 Thinking” which is less automatic and requires more conscious effort.
Why Does Feedback Matter?
Feedback is interconnected with our brain's functioning. Due to the dominance of “System 1 Thinking”, our brains quickly sort every situation into either safe or unsafe. If feedback about mistakes isn't handled empathetically, we often perceive it as threatening, which makes it much harder to have meaningful conversation and develop understanding. Those delivering the feedback can be equally bound by these ancient systems and patterns – we all have human neurobiology, after all.
This is where coaching comes into play. Coaching offers communication frameworks that help establish psychological safety, acting as bumpers for our life's communication lanes.
The Lumia Feedback System
So, how do we actually give empathetic feedback that helps move the needle? Here at Lumia, we consider when a mistake has created a negative impact, an incident has occurred, or a harmful pattern has emerged and then use the following steps:
Step 1: Empathy Map
First, we consider the person who needs feedback in their full context and all of their humanity. This involves understanding their general well-being and any significant life stressors. What’s going on in their life? Are they dealing with outside stress or difficulties? We create an empathy map based on what they are hearing, seeing, feeling and experiencing so we can better understand what they’re up against.
Step 2: Run an Empathy Assessment
Sometimes things don’t go as planned – at this point, we gather factual data on what we expected to happen and what actually happened instead. It’s important at this point to stick to real examples and avoid projection.
Step 3: Reach Out
It’s time to reach out to the person who needs feedback, and establish an environment of psychological safety. The person needs to know up front that a feedback session is being requested out of love for course correction and growth, but that this person is not in trouble. The purpose of this feedback is to draw awareness to a mistake, incident, or pattern so that everyone can course correct and grow. Mutual success and reassurance is the goal of the session!
Step 4: Outreach Process
Reach out and let the person know you need to schedule a feedback session. Tell them the goal of the conversation will be to create awareness about a blindspot or negative impact (or both). Let them know that you will provide a detailed rundown of exactly what will be discussed so that they can prepare ahead of time. Remind them they’re not in trouble, the goal is positive support.
Step 5: Preparation Process
About 24-48 hours in advance of the conversation, provide the empathy map you created and kindly outline the perceived impact. Ask your person to come to the table prepared to offer additional information and solutions to help bridge the gap between your expectations and what has occurred. Let them know you are coming to the conversation with an assumption of goodwill, and confirm that the goal of the conversation is support for growth
NOTE: It will be important to also consider how your person likes to receive information - are they visual or auditory? Voice memos can work great for auditory learners.
Step 6: Having the Conversation
During the conversation, stick to the pre-agreed outline, discuss what you expected and what happened, and work together to figure out how to close the gap. Agree on a plan of action and schedule a follow-up session to make sure everything is running smoothly.
Implementing these different steps allows us to eliminate surprises and navigate the tricky waters of feedback effectively. By empathetically approaching these conversations, we can foster growth, learning, and an environment where everyone feels safe and respected.
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