A friend recently provided generous, excellent and critical feedback on a blog post and email sent to her. Reading it really hit me, was appreciated, and also got me reflecting on what feedback is, and how it works when done well.

Feedback seems fundamentally necessary for any system, human or otherwise, that is to improve or evolve. And in the case of interacting humans, it’s not just a systems diagram or a system, our conceptions, perceptions and interactions are a related and intertwined system.

Whether negative (counteraction) or positive (amplification) feedback, noticing that the feedback is for something, an effect other than its communication seems fundamental. As a human, the feedback may be about you to some degree (affirming or denying some skill or quality), but it’s more for the purpose of the improvement of performance in the context of a particular purpose.

I feel like bad feedback is that which misdirects efforts, away from improvement. Average or inconsequential feedback could be that which isn’t ‘critical’ and may be more to do with the humans relating than the activity towards the purpose. It could be that non-violent communication fits into that category of feedback, as it’s highest aspiration is to not harm the other. Good feedback may be that which is generative (here’s one meaning of that word).

The content of the blog on which I received the feedback seems useful as a way to give good feedback:

First, is there actual an inquiry ‘space’ open? Has the other or system requested feedback? If not, perhaps it’s not ‘open’ to evolution or improvement so best leave it alone. Or maybe ask? You can ask the same of yourself. If we are talking about hoping to evolve a system, this could be to a state of operation that literally has never existed before i.e. any inquiry and feedback must be open and ‘not know’ where it’s going.

Second, what’s the context? The context of the activity, the actors. Not your context and perception but that of which the actors and actions are being undertaken.

Third, what’s the frame? You may make your frame explicit and ask about the others, or the purpose, strategies and tactics being undertaken. From your pure observation of the behaviour you wouldn’t have that information as it’s conceptual, invisible, so you’d have to ask about it.

Fourth, what was the action (and who undertook it)? Paying attention to what actually occurred. Most of the time, for most people, most of their attention is not on what’s occurring, it’s on future, past or something conceptual. Knowing this, checking with others about what you actually thought happened or is happening is worth doing.

Fifth, what information is being given attention? You may have had a consequential experience after the action. But what else occurred? Was the action actually effective in achieving an outcome?

All of this cold be considered in how one gives feedback.

While this short audio piece doesn’t make these elements explicit, it touches on most aspects to the degree that most people can probably cope with!

Writing this brings to mind radically different styles of communication and action in a project I’m working on. While we are generally all aligned in our efforts, there are multiple objectives: practically completing a building project, getting along together as collaborators and future neighbours, and doing all this in a way that is intended to create a positive precedent for others to follow. In this situation, feedback is tricky to give and receive as at any one time an action may be both effective and ineffective depending on the purpose to which it was intended e.g. do I encourage or discourage someone’s communication if it is effective in increasing group coherence while increasing delays in construction?

Feedback, it seems, is always a question of context.

And that: we. are. in. communication. seems a critical thing to notice.

P.S. Noting, while writing, some future threads to pick up to improve my understanding and practice of feedback:

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