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Candid feedback saves a life

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

BY TOM COX

I recently saved someone’s life by giving him really candid feedback.

On a recent Wednesday night I was at my weekly Toastmasters meeting, giving the General Evaluation. We were 62 minutes into our 75 minute program, and my job was to give supportive feedback.

(Some of the best training and practice for leadership comes from Toastmasters, as you are constantly being encouraged to grow as a communicator and as a listener.)

The prior 61 minutes I had spent feverishly listening and note-taking. I owed it to each participant to notice at least one thing they were doing well, so I could encourage them to keep doing it, and at least one thing they could improve on, so they could grow and improve. And I would have just 3 minutes to convey all that feedback to the 7 people whose performances I was evaluating.

During that 61 minutes, I had noticed one club member, Don, was speaking more “thickly” than usual – he’s an older, overweight guy. It reminded me of some early stroke symptoms I’d read about, where the person sounds as if their tongue has become thick, or they are not enunciating words well (what doctors call “aphasia”).

So, at minute 62, I had to decide — do I say anything? What do I say? How do I say it in a way most likely to encourage the desired behavior? And what if I’m wrong? And, I have six other people to evaluate.

What came to me in that moment was to tell him that his content was excellent — he had supported the theme of the evening — and that his pronunciation was less clear than usual, and frankly I was concerned for his health. I asked him to notice his enunciation, and to take care of himself. Then I evaluated the other participants.

My feedback to Don opened the door to several other members approaching him after the meeting to say they too saw something different, that he seemed to be doing poorly, etc.

I later learned that this feedback — first from me, then from others — was enough to get him to call his daughter, go to Urgent Care, then to the hospital for a scan. They told him he’d had a small stroke. Fortunately it was within the crucial three-hour window, so he should not lose any permanent brain function.

The next day another club member, Nelly, told me I shouldn’t have done what I did — instead, I should have said something privately, and not commented on someone’s health in public.

CEOs and managers go through something similar every day — we have to give quick feedback all the time. We need to be steering the people and the culture of the organization, encouraging personal and professional growth.

Here are the lessons I learned.

1. When in doubt, say something


You’ll never know if you’ve said exactly the right thing before you say it. So don’t sweat it. Say it “good enough” and with a positive motive. Worry too much about saying it “just right” and you’ll clam up and not give the feedback. How many times have you let a project fall behind without asking the project manager what they’re stuck on? Or let an employee’s lateness slide because you don’t want to make a big deal over it, or you’re not sure exactly what to say? If you have something to say, it’s always better to say something.

2. Practice giving lots of feedback

Your people only get better at a task by trying that task and then getting feedback. You’ll only get better at giving the feedback when you practice it a lot and have someone watching and correcting and guiding you.

3. You can’t control how they take it – so don’t worry about it

I had two outcomes – one person saved his own life by listening to me, and another person criticized me for speaking up. None of that was fully predictable. Don could have shrugged off my comment, gone home and died. Nelly could have been hugely upset at me instead of mildly bothered. And I could have been totally wrong and Don might have just had a cold. At the moment you’re giving feedback, you cannot know any of that. As Dick Warn teaches, “I am responsible to you, not for you.” Just stay true to yourself.

4. Be gentle

When you try to make someone take an action, like go to the hospital, you can be tempted to push your feedback at them like a water-cannon, trying to move them. That’s almost always a mistake. Stick to the facts, and report them honestly. Don’t say “you’re always coming in late” — say “I noticed you came in 12 minutes late today, and when I checked the time card it shows you’ve been in more than 10 minutes late five of the last seven days.” Facts don’t need force behind them. And the more gentle and dispassionate you are in your delivery, the more the facts will speak for themselves.

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust.

 
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