Thursday, 9 October 2014

How to avoid feedback disasters - what's your purpose?

Giving, receiving, thinking about and teaching feedback occupies a large proportion of my time, both at work and in my private life. I notice how people avoid it, crave it, botch it and do well and wonder at the variability of attitudes and capacity. Part of  my vision for an improved world is doing it better and appreciating the value of feedback.

So I was pleased to recently work with a medical college in trial exams for candidates to practise and receive feedback about all aspects of their performance: medical knowledge, exam technique, communication with me, the simulated patient, and their overall competence.

My case was intense, requiring me to cry and be angry about the situation. As an acting job, it was excellent. I had a really lovely doctor to work with as he conducted the trial exam station.

Candidate after candidate struggled with both the medical knowledge and their capacity to communicate. They often freak out when confronted with a simulated patient who is crying and angry just like a real patient would be in the same situation. Usually they recover. I quickly discovered that the doctor with me had a very different view of good communication. I also learned that many candidates were having significant problems with the medical aspects of the case.

After all candidates had had their trial, we saw them again for two minutes of feedback. After hearing from the doctor how terrible everyone was, I was surprised to hear him start by telling people "you did well". He'd then list - in exhaustive detail - all the areas of failure. He sent them off by saying they "weren't too bad" or "but you did ok".

I was confused. The candidates looked confused. They really wanted to know about their performance. They were participating in this trial exam so that they knew where they had performed well and what they needed to improve. Instead they received a confusing message that left them with no information about what they should do next time. The next time would be when they sit the actual exam.

I took the opportunity to observe and think about what was going wrong and how I would coach the doctor on providing useful, effective feedback.

The first question I would ask would be "what's the purpose of the feedback you're about to deliver?" Then to further clarify, "what do you want to happen as a result of this person receiving your feedback?"

Answering these questions before any feedback conversation will help remove our sometimes overwhelming desire to be liked from the feedback conversation. Interestingly, if your purpose is clear and about helping the other person, they probably will like you because you've taken the time to give them effective feedback that will help them do better in their world.

Listening to the doctor deliver his confusing messages, I tried to discern his purpose; it seemed it was about fulfilling part of the process of the trial exam. Where's the value in that? Feedback is part of the process and there's no doubt there was an obligation on him to provide it, but if the purpose of feedback is merely procedural then no one will benefit. It will be hard to deliver and unhelpful to receive. At its worst, it may also have a negative impact on the relationship between people.

Consistently I find that a lack of clarity around purpose is where people stumble. And it's not just in feedback conversations. Any conversation can benefit from clarity of purpose. Where the conversation is a strategic one (rather than a casual one), it needs to be planned. If you do nothing else, be clear about the answers to these key questions:

1.  what's the purpose of the feedback you're about to deliver?

2. what do you want to happen as a result of this person receiving your feedback?

It can change your life!

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