Words, Sticks, Stones, and Feedback


By Scott Herbst, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer (sherbst@thechicagoschool.edu)

Many of us struggle with giving difficult feedback.  It isn’t fun.  We want people to do well and we want to tell them they did well.  Just last night, I went out of my way to call a friend who I hadn’t talked to since he led part of a seminar I was attending.  His growth as a speaker and leader since the last time I had seen him do something similar was remarkable.  I couldn’t wait to tell him.  Conversely, when I observe people present and it doesn’t go as well, I hope I won’t run into them or that they won’t ask the dreaded question, “How did I do?”  Hopefully, he or she did one thing well enough that I can point to that before saying, “And I think one thing you might consider working on is…”  It isn’t fun giving difficult feedback. 

Why is that?  I think if you asked most people, they would answer, “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”  And that probably feels true to them when they say it.  At the same time, in my (imaginary) sunrise run along Lake Michigan this morning, it also felt like the sun was rising in the east over the lake.  It really did.  The thing is, the sun wasn’t rising; the Earth was spinning on its axis as it continued revolving around the sun.  In relation to the Earth, the Sun was standing still.  Feelings are a poor test of reality. 

As I wrote, however, it probably genuinely feels to people as though they are interested in protecting the feelings of others.  However, if you dig a little deeper, you may find that there are situations where the feelings of others really don’t matter much at all.  How many of us have no problem with laying on the horn and yelling “jackass!” (or worse) at someone when we’re safely in our car?  Or how many of us are nice, genteel, polite people in live conversation and turn into raving, rude, lunatics on Facebook comment threads.  Personally, in a recent back and forth with one of my conservative (real life) friends (and Facebook enemy), he accused me of being “smarmy.”  I was confused.  I was confronted with the fact that I actually didn’t know what “smarmy” meant.   I had to go look it up.  It turns out it means “excessively flattering in a way that is not believable.”  I had to go apologize for coming across as smarmy.  “That wasn’t my intention,”  I wrote.  “My intention was to be outright hostile and conspicuously insulting.”  Clearly, I wasn’t being responsible for my communication!  I wanted my friend’s feeling to hurt.  Yet, if you asked me when I was wasn’t thinking about people’s feelings any my intentions toward them, I would likely tell you I am the type of person who doesn’t like to hurt pthers’ feelings.  Interesting. 

I have a feeling that, for a lot of us who don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, it isn’t so much that we’re worried about their feelings so much as we’re worried about what they might do with their hurt feelings.  The real concern is that that, being hurt, they might hurt us.  And that’s why we avoid giving feedback and then aren’t so good at giving it when we do.  We either don’t give it, or we deliver it aggressively, in a way that communicates, “DO NOT mess with me.”  Or, we wait for times when people can’t strike back.  Like on Facebook, or when behind the wheel of a car, or over email. 

Of course, one way they could strike back is by actually striking back.  However, if you’re like me its been a long time since anyone actually did that.  The last time anyone actually struck me was about six years ago, there was barely any force behind it, and he immediately apologized.  Before that, I don’t remember the last time it happened.  What’s more likely is that they would strike back with words.  We worry about what they might say to us and, so we don’t have to hear that thing, we don’t say the things that could trigger it.  Or, again, we say them badly – aggressively – in a way that leaves the other disempowered and afraid. 

In the above scenario, what you’ll notice is that the things we say, don’t say, and the way we say them are a function of avoidance.  We do something, not to get something, and not to get rid of something, but instead so that it never shows up in the first place.  And there’s two things about that I’d like to point to.  First, behaving to make sure something doesn’t happen is very stressful.  Its where the term “walking on eggshells” comes from.  Second, and this is what makes such behavior is so persistent, is that we do things to avoid consequences and, if our behavior is successful, we never contact the consequence.  In other words, nothing happens.  We might actually be living in a world in which the thing we’re avoiding doesn’t exist anymore and yet we will keep doing things to keep it away because the fact of its absence is evidence the behavior is working. 

Another thing you should notice about the above scenario is that what we’re avoiding, mostly, is just words.  And at this point in the article, you may say to yourself, “Oh my God!  He’s right!  I’ve been avoiding words this whole time.  I’m not going to do that anymore.”  Don’t do that.  We’ve all heard the old chant about sticks and stones.  It hasn’t made much difference.   I don’t expect adding 900 some odd words and personal examples will do much to alter that.  The wonderful thing about language is that the words we use take on some of the characteristics of the things they represent.  And then we can use those representations to apply them to new things, and do extraordinary things, like send a spaceship to Pluto.  And the terrible thing about language is that words take on some of the same characteristics of the things they represent.  And we avoid words like we avoid gunfire.  And we organize our communication so that people don’t shoot us with their words. 

But what if words didn’t have the effect of sticks and stones?  Imagine what life would be like if you could say anything to anyone and, more importantly, they could say anything to you.  Or, more accurately, what if you actually had the capacity to be with any communication?  I’ll leave you with an exercise that is designed to expand your capacity to be with communication.  It’s designed to extinguish the bone-breaking, hurtful functions of language. 

Imagine a situation where there is something you want to say and you’re afraid of how people might react.  You may not even be aware that you’re afraid, so simply looking for a situation where there’s something you want to say and aren’t saying it should be enough.  It could be delivering feedback to a subordinate or co-worker, or it could be something else.  Maybe you’re stopped in telling someone you’d like them to improve their performance, or maybe you’re stopped in telling your date you want to tear her clothes off.   Maybe you’re not telling the people you love that you love them.  This exercise works for any of those situations. 

Now, take on the willingness to be a little uncomfortable.  If you do this next part honestly, you should get a little uncomfortable.  If you’re not willing to get a little uncomfortable here, that’s not a problem.  Just be willing to keep having things you want to say and aren’t.   In other words, be willing to keep walking on eggshells. 

Now, close your eyes, and imagine the situation.  Imagine the situation where you would deliver the communication, the person to whom you’d deliver it, and most importantly, imagine their reaction.  The critical thing here is to actually let yourself imagine their reaction.  One thing you might find yourself doing is minimizing it.  You might say, “that’s silly,” or try to intellectualize it away by saying, “they wouldn’t really react that way.”  Consider that you saying those things is just more of avoiding the reaction.  It may, indeed, be silly that you would think they would react that way and, indeed, they might never actually react that way.  That doesn’t matter!  What matters is that, for you, it exists as a real, if not totally logical or sensible, possible consequence.  Remember what we said about avoidance behavior?  We will avoid things that might never happen anyway.  Let yourself, at the very least, experience their reaction in the safe space of your imagination.  Imagine what they could say back to you that would really hurt you.  Imagine what you’re really afraid to hear. 

Now the tough part.  This is going to be tough for two reasons.  First, it’s going to take some vulnerability on your part.  Second, you’re going to have to hear the thing you really, really have been working so hard not hear.  Go find a partner, preferably someone you love and trust and that you are clear loves you back.  Tell them, “I’m going to train you to say something to me and then you’re going to say it to me.  When you do, I’m going to reply ‘Thank you.’  I want you to listen to the ‘thank you.’  What you should listen for is that, when I say it, I am not reacting to the communication, and that I am genuinely welcoming the communication.  If I am not reacting and actually welcoming the communication, you say, ‘pass.’  And if not, then you say, ‘no pass,’ and we’ll try again.”  This part will be especially tough if you’ve clearly identified the thing you’re avoiding.  It will be tough to even tell someone to tell you this, because it will entail admitting that there’s something someone can’t say to you AND you’re telling them exactly what that thing is.  It’s like handing them a gun loaded with bullets made especially for you.  And they’re about to shoot you with it. 

Then, train them to deliver the communication.  Have them say it exactly as someone would say it in your imagined situation.   Practice this until they get it right. 

Then, sit across from them with your feet on the floor and your hands in their lap.  Look them in the eye and say, “start.”  When they say it, take a moment to experience it.  Notice where your body reacts and the physical sensations.  Take a moment to observe those sensations.  When you’re ready, say, “Thank you.” 

Have them pass you or not and repeat as necessary. 

What you’ll find is that as you expand your capacity to be with different communications, your capacity for leadership will expand along with it.  Ultimately, leaders are the ones who people hold accountable.  They’re the ones to whom we give credit when things go well, and they’re the ones we blame when things don’t.  When you can stop resisting what might be said when things don’t go the way people want them, your capacity to speak to and about those things that are really important to you expands dramatically.  So I encourage you to go explore: what aren’t you saying?

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Scott Herbst, PhD

Scott Herbst, PhD

Scott Herbst, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Applied Behavior Analysis Department at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology where he teaches graduate courses in basic concepts, relational frame theory, and radical behaviorism. In his spare time he coaches people in applying behavioral principles in their lives and organizations.

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