|There’s no failure, only feedback|
Recently, I found myself talking with a friend about my life as a singer. Specifically, I was remembering a performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in which I had made a very lusty entry – in the wrong place.
In my early days as a member of the London Symphony Chorus, I would never have made such a mistake. The fear of making a mistake made me hold back; my singing was (largely) correct but it lacked gusto. With time, I have learnt that a mistake is just a mistake so that when I came in (with the men, as I recall) in the wrong place in Belshazzar’s Feast I found myself celebrating it as a sign of a growing sense of ease and self acceptance.
In my work with clients, I am constantly reminded of how vulnerable people can feel in receiving feedback. At times, charged with giving feedback to people I have assessed for jobs, I meet strong resistance and defensiveness. One client told me a while back that he thought I’d taken a dislike to him before the interview had even begun. Another recently asked for chapter and verse of how I’d reached my conclusions. Coaching clients are no different. Recently, I invited a client to seek out feedback from three people she trusts about her core strengths. Even though she was charged with asking for positive feedback, she found herself paralysed by the fear of what people might say.
Maybe you have your own experience of wanting to know how people see you and yet, finding it challenging to ask. Perhaps you worry that your work falls short of the mark. You want to know how your work is seen and still, you are afraid to ask. You want to be seen – and seen fully – and yet you fear that you may be seen as “less than”. Perhaps “less than” relates to your job or promotion prospects; you fear you are not performing or lack what you need to make your next career steps. Perhaps “less than” relates – oh, so personally! – to who you are; you fear that in some way you are fatally flawed. You are not alone in having such fears.
Let’s be clear, these are the kind of fears that hold you back. This is true at any number of levels. One client, for example, was investing a great deal of energy in guessing where his colleagues might be coming from and seeking to put himself beyond reproach, until he started to test his assumptions and realised that his fears were unwarranted. Another client kept missing out on a promotion that was easily within her reach because she was not open to hearing feedback and adjusting her approach in one key area.
It can help to realise that your behaviour is not who you are. We are all so much more than the sum of our behaviours. Yes, our behaviours reflect who we are – our values and intentions, our feelings and needs. Still, there are many ways in which they don’t reflect our essential self. Perhaps, for example, you simply lack skill in a certain area. Perhaps you have followed a poor example or even been taught to behave in a certain way and are doing so unconsciously.
Once you start to strip away old and unhelpful beliefs or to develop new skills your behaviour comes closer to reflecting who you are and may even leave you with an enriched sense of yourself. Once you start to understand that you are not your behaviour, asking for feedback becomes easier. In the discipline of neuro-linguistic programming (or NLP) this is reflected in a presupposition: there’s no failure, only feedback.
Let me return to my client – the one I asked to seek out feedback about her core strengths. If you’re anything like her, you may be wondering what steps you can take before asking for feedback to build your sense of ease. Here’s just one thing you can do to begin to understand what stands in the way (which I learnt from Roger Schwarz, author of The Skilled Facilitator):
Step 1: Identify a recent conversation in which you could have asked for feedback (and may even have wanted to) but didn’t.
Step 2: Take some paper or open a document and create two columns. In the right hand column, capture as much as you can of the actual conversation – what you said and what the other person said.
Step 3: Write down any additional thoughts and feelings you had during the conversation in the left hand column alongside details of the actual conversation.
Capturing your thoughts in this way offers the opportunity to reflect on what beliefs and emotions you have about receiving feedback and opens up awareness and new possibilities.