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Lessons from a personal multi-source feedback project

"A friend is someone who sees the potential in you and helps you to live it."     W. B. Yeats (adapted)

"Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger."    Franklin Jones

A few months ago now, I initiated a personal feedback project.  It was triggered by a number of factors.  I was soon to start the third part of an Emotion-Focused Therapy training and was interested in possibly using myself as "a case study" for the course; I had received some quite surprising & confronting feedback from a friend and I wondered how idiosyncratic or widespread his viewpoint might be; I had been encouraging feedback in groups that I run and I wanted to explore this more deeply; and finally I'm in a very good position to ask for & receive honest, thoughtful feedback from a broad social circle.

It's swings & roundabouts.  Because I'm a single-handed health professional, it's very difficult to get extensive feedback from a reasonable number of colleagues on my work performance.  This could turn out to be a bit of a nuisance - see the post I wrote a couple of days ago "Compulsory multi-source feedback is coming or has already come to the health professions & to many other jobs as well".  However, I have been involved in peer interpersonal groups for many years.  I have access to a large number of friends & acquaintances who have shared this group learning environment with me and who probably view feedback processes positively.  In fact when I initiated a still running series of annual residential groups over twenty years ago, I used the adapted Yeats quote in the initial letters I mailed out ... "A friend is someone who sees the potential in you and helps you to live it".  I used the same quotation in an email I sent to thirty or so friends and acquaintances in July and August of this year.  Each email began with a personal cover note and then went on to say:

"Dear Friend

I feel a bit shy about sending this email to you, but I would be very grateful for your help.

The background is that I've booked myself in for the next stage of an "Emotion-Focused Therapy" training this autumn.  One of the requirements involves a couple of client case studies and I thought it might be creative to use myself as one of them!  This led me to think about what I'd most want to work on or work towards.  What comes up is around being "useful" in the world.  For this, it seemed like it might be really helpful to get feedback from some people who know me pretty well.  Hence this email to you.

So - like so many of us - I deeply want to allow love, kindness, authenticity, truth, curiosity, appreciation in & of this world and - like so many of us - at times this is distorted by old conditioning, out-of-date ways of being, unneeded defences, some of which I'm very aware of & some of which I'm maybe blind to.  So the question centres around how I can best allow more love, be more helpful, in this life dance I do with others.  As a friend who knows me, I'd be very grateful if you could give me your feedback on what you feel sometimes gets in the way of this for me.  And, so it's not all self-flagellation (!), maybe too what you feel sometimes channels through me particularly helpfully. 

I don't want to "impose" on your time too much, so immediate off-the-cuff responses are fine - and if you genuinely are happy to put a bit more thought into what you write that's totally generous and great too - and if it doesn't feel right for you to respond to this, that's fine as well.  Oh, and if you would like similar feedback from me about you & your life, I'm very happy to share in the same way for you.

With love, appreciation and gratitude

James"

As Alexander Pope put it "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread" and the immediate reaction from one or two people who have some experience of this kind of blanket feedback request warned me along the lines of "It will all end in tears"!  It's not as though I kept the email just for those I thought mostly approved of me.  It seemed important to send it out as well to several people who I know quite often find me difficult or who have fallen out with me.

So what happened?  Well, after a reminder and a bit of follow-up, over twenty people replied.  With the General Medical Council multi-source feedback questionnaires, they recommend one aim for input from at least fifteen colleagues to obtain a broad enough range of views ... so, even with my much looser format, twenty or so replies seemed a pretty good number.  The written responses varied from just a few words to a page or more in length.  I also had an hour or so's conversation with at least four people.  Expert recommendation is to try and get feedback in both oral and written format and, from my personal experience, I would certainly recommend this.  If the initial feedback is written, it can be really helpful to follow it up with a conversation about the points that have been made.  If it is initially oral, then writing out one's understanding of the key issues discussed and emailing them to one's colleague for correction & comment makes great sense. 

For most people this is likely to be deeply challenging, but also potentially deeply valuable territory.  I offered to give feedback to any of the thirty or so people I wrote to, but only two or three requested it.  Research unsurprisingly shows that simply getting a load of positive feedback doesn't typically lead to any worthwhile change in behaviour.  Ideally one gets a fair number of comments that help one improve on what one is doing.  To be open to this and not "collapse" or disappear behind "defensive walls" can take a lot of courage.  Research shows that distress in response to critical feedback is "often strong and long-lasting".  I have two well-respected, experienced, competent, loving friends who received multi-source feedback from colleagues.  In both cases it was "compulsory" rather than voluntary.  They are both really fine people.  One ... a doctor of many years ... has described it to me as the most painful experience of his professional life.  The other ... a member of a charitable organization ... took at least two years to recover.  Now in both cases the feedback was pushed onto them in ways that I strongly feel was incompetent and badly thought through.  Feedback that isn't fairly strong medicine is likely to have simply been a collection of over-safe mutual back-slapping ... and I know from discussion with medical colleagues that this kind of you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours is very likely when people are allowed to simply choose who they approach for the feedback they get.  However anonymous, one-shot, multi-source comments with no opportunity for clarification can be a horrible experience. 

I was fascinated by the input that I received ... and this wasn't all just narcissistic self-involvement!  Lots of it was very kind and extremely positive.  One experience that I laugh at now, but which is very real, is how I tended to read through the pages of material I received looking for "lumps of sh*t", the criticisms, the personal "attacks".  At a very basic level, I suspect that this is a pretty universal adaptive hunter-gatherer pattern.  To survive we need to monitor for potential sources of threat.  More important to notice the colleague who looks ready to fling a spear at you than the colleague who's offering you a bunch of bananas.  You can accept and enjoy the bananas later, but only if you've already survived the spear.  And of course this response to others reactions to us isn't just affected by basic hunter-gatherer mechanisms, it is also heavily conditioned by early life experiences in our families of origin and the school playgrounds of our childhoods. 

Really fascinating.  Initially I found it hard to read through the dozen or so pages of feedback and make much sense of them.  There was so much information here.  In the end I looked for common themes and then put together a table with the three or four main appreciative themes and the three or four main challenging themes.  I then copied and pasted a whole series of comments into each of the relevant boxes in the table.  This helped me begin to see the overall patterns better.  Some of it was painful.  Of course feedback from someone else potentially says as much about them as it says about you.  A great advantage of getting feedback from a wide range of people is that it gives context.  Some challenging comments were very idiosyncratic and not mentioned by anyone else, or even contradicted by the comments of several other people.  This "outlier" feedback I "accepted" more tentatively, suspecting it said more about my idiosyncratic relationship with the feedback giver than about my general behaviours.  Other areas of celebration or challenge were mentioned by several people, in varying ways of course.  This more mainstream material seemed more significant and important to learn from.  I found it helpful to use therapeutic writing and especially to speak to good friends about what had emerged.  Gradually over days I was able to chew over and digest what I'd been given.  At times it felt bleak & painful, at times heart-warming & deeply affirming.  I've never received so much concentrated feedback in my life before and I'll probably never do so again.  What an extraordinary opportunity!  This I found very helpful ... to remind myself why I'd asked for feedback in the first place.  To know how central it is for me to live open-heartedly, courageously, questioningly.  These comments from others can very much support me in doing this more fully.  As Jennifer Crocker showed in her paper "Two types of value-affirmation", reconnecting to our core values can be a particularly helpful way of staying open & available when the going gets tough.    

The next step after this was to clarify what I wanted to work on and try to change.  Here it was great to have the kinds of tools I use so often both for clients and for myself ... see, for example, the post "Building willpower: the eight pillars".   Very good too to talk these intentions through with close friends and agree to check in later on how the intentions progress.  There's so much more that I could say about this "personal feedback project".  I'm fortunate.  I have many honest, insightful, loving friends, acquaintances and ... people who I know who are more emotionally mixed about me!  I received a really helpful, kind, challenging, celebrating, difficult, interesting bunch of comments.  Very valuable (or at least I can make it very valuable) and I'm very glad I did it. 

See the next post "Some suggestions for giving and receiving helpful feedback" for more that emerged from all this.

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