It’s not failure, it’s only feedback…

lightbulb… or so goes a popular inspirational quotation. And actually, it’s one that I firmly believe in. We tend to look at failure as a disaster, when the easiest thing to do is to treat it as a learning exercise. “Well, that didn’t work – so I’ll try something else next time”. The famous (and, it should be said, apocryphal) tale of Thomas Edison was that after blowing his house up at his 10,000th attempt to create a light bulb, declared that he hadn’t failed once – he’d just discovered 10,000 ways not to do it.

Yet feedback can be astonishingly painful and uncomfortable, whether it’s a comment from a spouse or loved one, or a performance review from your manager at work. So how do we do it better?

Many of you know I dance – and dance the blues. I had the privilege of attending a Mariachi weekend run by the amazing team of CJ and Yliander ( a while back, and while initially bringing up images of moustachioed Mexicans with trumpets and acoustic guitars, the reality is somewhat different as an opportunity to dance to the music that I love… rock and blues and anything with a guitar in it (if we discount the rebellious early morning set from Messrs Rodham and Shillito where no guitars were allowed). All of which is a diversion and context for the rest of this piece, so perhaps I should get back to talking about whatever the hell I was talking about. Ah, yes, feedback….

After a weekend of dancing and classes, we formed up for what was billed as a “Portland Dance Lab”. Here the idea was that we danced, and then our partner got the opportunity to give us feedback. And I have to say it was one of the scariest moments of my dancing history, as I am fully aware of many of my dance shortcomings, and so expect that there are many others I am not yet aware of!

buckden lbdWith each new partner we asked the questions “would it be OK if I observe you while we dance?” and “would it be OK if I gave you some feedback when we’ve finished?” And off we whirled into a dance, and afterwards one of us – either the lead or the follow – would offer constructive feedback. There was only one rule: “no feedback on the feedback”.

And of course, because we’re all nice people in the dance world, we got a lot of lovely feedback, and all went away very happy. And I could relax.

Often, though, we do make a mess of giving feedback. It’s one of the things that has been a part of my personal development as a speaker and leader, as well as my time as a manager and employee. Yet I loved the Portland Lab, and here’s why:

First of all, we knew we had permission. Often we get feedback that’s unsolicited, unwanted. Now, most of the time, I welcome feedback from those that I respect and trust, from those that love me. So for them, I have given them permission to tell me what they think, knowing that they love me and want the best for me. I’m not so open (although I will usually listen) when someone I barely know gives me feedback!

(A couple of weeks ago, I was dancing with someone who, when we’d finished, said “that was a fabulous dance….” and I could almost taste the word “but” in the air. She went on to explain some finer point of the dance, which I have tried to incorporate – yet the use of the word “but” completely destroyed her earlier compliment. And in fact, having talked to others, and listened to my own dance teacher – she was actually not entirely correct in her assessment either, by expressing a personal preference as universal truth.

So if we are giving feedback, we do need to know that it’s OK to give feedback to someone – and we need to know that dressing criticism up with a compliment is cheating!)

Secondly, we had to accept it. “No feedback on the feedback” meant exactly that. No arguing with it, no chance to put your own point of view… just listen to it, accept it, learn from it. Of course, we’re free to discard feedback we don’t think is helpful… but at least we have listened. When I was training to be an NLP trainer, we  were put in many, many situations where feedback was given. Our answer was to be the same each time: “Thank you for the feedback”. That meant we were free to listen to it, to learn from it, and to accept it or reject it as we chose… but never to argue with it.

Thumb up.Of course, we also argue with positive feedback, don’t we? “Oh, it was nothing”. “Oh, you mean this old thing?” When someone tells you something you did well, or compliments you.. accept it. In fact, I’ve learned to treasure these moments. I actually have a notebook in which I write this kind of stuff down. In the lower moments in my life (yes, I get those too) then I can go back and look at them – and also, they also contain the seeds of understanding who I am – many of the comments that people have made have been used to shape the direction I have taken in life – helping me to truly know my strengths.

I learned somewhere that one of the best ways of giving feedback is actually not to mention what someone got wrong at all. Talk about what they got right. The amazing thing is that they’ll actually focus on that, and do more of it. Focussing on the negative doesn’t help. If you need to, find a way of reworking the ‘negative’ into something positive – find a place where they got it right, and focus on that.

So.. feedback. Learn to listen to it, accept it, use what works and what helps you – and just let the rest drop. If it doesn’t support you in your growth and in your own personal journey – then just let it drop. Because the real thing that matters is that you remember just how amazing and incredible you truly are.


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