Welcoming Echoes: The Feedback Guide for Guides
We’ve all been “there”. Maybe often, and hopefully decreasing in frequency. That frustrating place of wanting someone to drink from your juicy fountain of insight, only to have it splatter into a puddle and spoil.
And we’ve all been “here”. This place of spongy absorption. Feeling open and ready for more, yet also quenched and satisfied.
As an aspiring human development guide, I often find myself tracking my interactions with others in an effort to pinpoint what separates the fruitful exchanges from the awkward. I’ve noticed that many of those which have either immediately or later proven to be most beneficial for me have certain qualities and/or follow a general pattern. Similarly, I have grown aware of what seem to be foundational elements that must be established before anything meaningful can be received and integrated on either end.
This article outlines my Five Keys of Feedback, which have individually and collectively proven to be particularly powerful in my quest to become a consistent catalyst for growth in my community.
In no way am I claiming to have invented anything new, nor am I hoping to convert anyone from other methods that are serving their mission already. Rather, I share my experience in an effort to co-create a more robust library of resources for those serving in similar ways.
The feedback process requires at least two entities. For the purpose of this article, you (the reader) will play the role of “guide” (the person listening), and then offer “feedback” to the “audience” (the original speaker). By audience, I mean clients, participants, family, friends, or anyone who has chosen to engage with you through intimate conversation. This does not have to be restricted to professional capacities, and it is always good practice to make sure you are clear about your intentions and boundaries with anyone before diving deep. In other words, don’t start psycho-analyzing your mother-in-law during Thanksgiving if you haven’t established such a relationship already.
By “feedback”, I mean the intentional response from a listener (you, the guide) back to the speaker (audience).
By knowledge, I mean that which can be understood and/or transferred on an intellectual level alone. Facts, processes, and general concepts fall in this category.
By wisdom, I mean meaningful knowledge and/or unique insight that has utility and/or direct implications for personal growth.
“To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”
― Lao Tzu
Human beings evolve in close relation to our environment, and our ability to adapt to the changing world around us is the primary determining factor in our survival as species. This can be broken down into a simple process:
1) Gather raw data
2) Distill data into usable information
3) Make calculated decisions
4) Execute our plan, and
5) Analyze the results
This is not an exhaustive look at our evolutionary biology, and it will be sufficient for this topic. What is important to note is that we have undoubtedly relied on harvesting feedback for our entire existence, and it is no surprise (to me) that our viability as a species moving forward may also be influenced by our capacity to replicate this on a more personal level.
THE FIVE KEYS OF FEEDBACK
1) ASK FOR PERMISSION
Confession: I spent far too much of the first 7+ years of my professional life sharing uninvited “advice” to others. Rarely did I consider in my moments of intense frustration how the original relationship dynamic may be the single most important factor for determining whether or not any meaningful mentorship or transfer of wisdom could take place.
I have (slowly) learned that when I provide un-invited feedback, my intended audience tends to:
- Not listen at all as they wait for their turn to talk again, and/or
- Pretend to listen so as not to offend me, and/or
- Receive some knowledge, and rarely extrapolate any wisdom from it
OPENING THE DOOR
Ask. Sounds simple, and it isn’t always easy. Remembering to pause and ask if someone is open to feedback can be especially challenging when we feel we have the most to give.
For example, maybe you’ve been quietly studying and practicing transcendental meditation for 16 years, never finding yourself in front of a newbie. Until now. After sharing their first meditation experience with you, you might be ready to dump all 5,000 hours of your most vital nuggets onto their poor face. And they will probably run for the hills.
Sometimes it is possible to preface a dialogue with a question or intention about feedback, such as, “I’d love to hear your story about Mt. Rainier, and I’m curious to know if you’d be open to feedback after your done?”. Sometimes this doesn’t happen, and that is fine too.
For me, it helps to wait for an organic close to another’s share before asking if they’re open for feedback. Don’t cut someone off mid-sentence or rush to your own agenda, even if your intention is to help them. This gives them time to feel that they were heard in the original intention of their share. In other words, if they didn’t start sharing with an understanding that they would be getting feedback, it can be a strange feeling to all of a sudden feel like you’ve been analyzed instead of listened to.
2) STATE YOUR OBSERVATIONS
Start by naming universally-acceptable (or as close as is possible) observations about your audience’s experience or share. “I noticed you shift in your seat when you spoke about your father” or “You seemed to remember several details about the beginning of the story, but you didn’t speak to the end of it all.” This serves a few purposes:
- It creates a field of agreement and shared experience. Even if you were not there with this person or if you have different perceptions about it all, this basic foundation allows you to build a structure for later growth
- It models how to filter out our judgment and own subjective reality (see #3 below)
- It provides an effective lead-in to self-generated insight. This can come through naturally by allowing your audience time to respond, or through simple follow up questions like: “Why do you think that is? or “Is there anything underneath that?”
It is important to note that crafting 100% acceptable observations without any judgment or subjective bias of our own is unrealistic, and it is not the goal of this process to approach perfection in this area. Rather, it is our intention as human development guides to get out of the way as much as possible. To find this edge in ourselves is to trust the innate healing capacity of our inner and outer nature.
3) OWN YOUR STUFF
Being in the role of an elder or a guide is less about age or the fancy letters after our name as it is about having already participated in the same general experience as our audience. Thus, it is likely that those who are holding space for others through rites of passage, coaching arrangements, or other transformational processes will have had meaningful, emotional and/or recent experiences of their own. Moreso, they may even closely mirror what they are now facilitating.
This is not necessarily a recipe for disaster, nor is it a “conflict of interest”. It is an opportunity to strengthen the container through trust and transparency.
As above with stating your observations, owning your projections and judgments serves in several ways:
- It clearly differentiates between your observations (shared reality) and your personal experience (subjective experience)
- It offers your recipient some insight into your own process, which can help them understand you better and foster intimacy or familiarity
- By modeling this technique, we demonstrate an effective tool without suggesting it as advice
ONE POSSIBLE SCENARIO:
A young man is opening up to you about their first fight. Their story is eerily similar to a memory from your past, something you have worked on a lot, and yet it is triggering a strong emotional response in you. Rather than stuff it away and do your best to be as “solid” as possible, the invitation here is to be honest and current. Maybe start with, “Wow. Thank you for sharing this with me. Honestly, I am feeling some really strong emotions in my body right now, and it is important to me that you know how it is affecting me, too. I want to be supportive for you, and I would feel more comfortable if we took a pause or invited someone else to help us work through this with us. Are you ok with that?”
Or it might look like this:
“It sounds to me like you were trying to stand up for yourself” (observation). ”My opinion is that person is a bully and they probably deserved what they got.” (projection/judgment).” “I really don’t want to cast judgment on to people, but this topic hits home for me. I got picked on a lot as a kid and I just want you to know that I feel you. Hearing your story has me feeling anger and sadness inside.” (observation).
In my experience, this can be one of the most powerful tools in a facilitator’s kit. Personally speaking, I have found it to be more effective than attempting to remove all traces of judgment whatsoever. For one, it isn’t possible for me (yet?), and I have yet to witness another who can approach it without sounding inauthentic (at worst) or airy (at best).
Our own unique experiences have real value. Many of my teachers speak to our deepest wounds being the origin of our most precious gifts to the world, and this seems to be a way to alchemize some of the toxic lead into polished gold. That said, being clear in what is “ours” is a necessary component in packaging it up for another.
4) BE ESSENTIAL & GIVE PAUSE
As one of the four common intentions of council (an ancient way of group communication) the practice of being essential has applications that extend far beyond the feedback process. It serves many ends:
- Honoring the listener’s focused and attentive energy
- Refining your skills of articulation
- Increasing the efficiency of communication
…and is referred to by many other names:
- Be lean of expression
- Get to the root (of the root)
- Share what is needed and nothing more
- “Speak only if what you have to say is more beautiful than a moment of silence”
One of our recent guests on Rite Ways Radio, parenting coach and youth development pioneer Lori Woodley suggests a radical challenge: reduce what you typically share by a factor of 10. If you’re a 1000 word person, try out 100. If you’re already at 100, trim it to 10 and see what happens. You might be surprised, and I invite you to share your results with us.
THE “PREGNANT PAUSE”
Implicit in the intention of essentiality is the notion that silence is valuable, too. Without getting too new-agey on you, I feel confident suggesting that we can all recognize that there is a significant degree of communication that occurs outside the verbal or even audible spectrums. Body language, sometimes referred to as the “first language”, is a great example we can all relate with.
Similarly, there is a clear need for us to process new information on the physio-emotional and intellectual levels before it can become truly meaningful. Providing ourselves and our audience with ample time and space to “let it sink in” can be the difference between content overload and delivering an effective and complete message. Be tidy.
In my experience, many people can be uncomfortable with spontaneous moments of silence. It may be helpful to prompt such a pause with “Let’s just sit with what has been shared for a minute or so”. On the flipside, it might also be a healthy edge to utilize unplanned silence as a more advanced tool.
5) INVITE FEEDBACK
I feel most grounded and effective in my capacity as a facilitator when I flatten the hierarchy between me and audience. It seems as though our bandwidth for authentic human communication is increased when we shorten the real or perceived distance between ourselves, both in a terms of physical space and social stratification. In this context, we also must consider group safety and the implicit and explicit responsibility of the facilitator role. Use good discernment and, if applicable, follow the laws, guidelines, and/or best practices that govern your work.
With a stable container, we can then move to create an atmosphere of equity and exchange such that those who have agreed to receive what I have to share can also recognize how they are contributing. In the feedback process, this looks like creating an opportunity for your audience to return the favor.
I’ve seen it done many ways, and all have their appropriate fit. Some exchanges are best suited for immediate feedback across the same channel, like a passionate, heart-centered story shared with your intimate partner. Other times, like in a large group setting, asking participants to complete a written survey might be much more accommodating for all involved. In all cases, consider how timing and the “freshness factor” may influence quality and quantity.
Simply put, allocating the time, energy, and space to receive feedback on your process and product may be the most important element of all. Without it, we risk the integrity of our role and model a closed system. In my experience, even some of the most reputable and popular teachers, presenters and facilitators I have encountered have come across as preachy, condescending, and/or unapproachable because their event or course failed to invite appropriate feedback. Nothing says “I don’t care” quite like not listening.
At our best, we can complement and expand our environment’s natural feedback systems to deepen our connections, share meaningful experience, and come into better relations with our greater community. This feels increasingly important as we consider how much of our natural environments are being lost to industrial expansion. And for me, it feels like my duty as a conscious creature of the Earth to deepen my capacity for listening and deliver effective feedback for my audience.
I hope this article assists you in your journey, and of course, I would love to hear your feedback in the comments, on Facebook, or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).