I see it frequently, sadly, but for some reason, it has hit me harder this week. As I was thinking about writing to you about the topic I want to get into now, lyrics from one of the Eagles’ songs came to mind.
You can’t hide your lyin’ eyes
And your smile is a thin disguise
I thought by now you’d realize
There ain’t no way to hide your lyin’ eyes.”
I see people suffering this week because others have withheld feedback from them, the feedback they desperately needed. The feedback they could have considered, acted upon, and used to change for the better.
Why was the feedback withheld?
To spare their feelings. To avoid making them feel uncomfortable. To avoid the giver of the feedback from feeling uncomfortable. I don’t know. I’m just guessing. But I’m guessing I’m not far off the mark.
The cost of sparing people their feelings in the short-term sometimes crushes them in the long-term. The situations I’ve seen this week are situations where people have been removed from their jobs for not performing well enough. Moved or terminated. And they were caught by surprise.
This shouldn’t happen. But it does. All the time. How sad is that?
As author and consultant Patrick Lencioni once said, “Firing someone is sometimes the last act of cowardice.” In other words, we’ve been cowardly in avoiding giving the feedback the person needs, and we’ve created a mess by withholding it. So we cower more.
If we finally do provide the input, by that point we are frustrated, irritated, or angry, which means we are ineffective in giving it. The only options seem to be to move the person, demote them, or fire them. We do one of those options. We take our last act of cowardice. And promise ourselves next time we will do better…
This isn’t just in organizational life, is it? It is rampant in our personal relationships, too. Perhaps it is even more devastating with the people we are supposed to love. Devastating to our relationships. Devastating to us. And we wonder how the relationship ever ended up here, a shell of what it used to be.
We have all sorts of internal dialogue and justifications for avoiding, delaying, or dumbing down what we know we need to say. Here are just a few:
- We fear making people feel uncomfortable, or awkward — or worse, hurting them.
- We fear feeling uncomfortable or awkward ourselves.
- We fear we will do it in a hurtful way if we do.
- We fear emotions — ours or theirs — will get out of control.
- We fear they will bring up our shortcomings or our contributions to their struggles.
- We fear they will ask why we didn’t say anything sooner, and we will have not good answer.
Bottom line: we scare ourselves away from giving the gift of feedback to the people we work with and the people we love. They carry on, potentially blindly. And then, after succumbing to the fear, we justify it mentally to assuage our shame about our lack of spine.
Is this, in any way, “nice” or “kind? To treat another person this way?” If that’s your version of “nice” or “kind,” I have one request: Please don’t be nice or kind to me. Tell me what I need to know or consider, give me the information, perspective, and input I might be missing. Then leave it up to me to handle the rest.
True friends stab you in the front.” Oscar Wilde
The crazy thing is: in avoiding, we don’t. Avoidance is an illusion. At some point, it comes home to roost. It comes with compound interest and doesn’t end with anyone feeling good about it. We are taking refuge. Which brings me to another line from that Eagles song:
I guess every form of refuge has its price.”
Forget that refuge. The price is too high. Let’s live full out. Let’s get better at caring for one another, shall we?
Let’s say fully what might be helpful and likely will be awkward. Let’s do it soon before it balloons or spins out of control or becomes insurmountable. Let’s say it before we are triggered or fed up, or it is simply too late.
Let’s stop hurting one another as a result of avoiding making one another feel awkward or uncomfortable. I’ll take awkward or uncomfortable over hurt and hurtful any day. You?
The solution is simple. Say what you need to say, sooner, with your heart at peace. Give it as a gift. Give it without attachment. Let the other person do or not do something with it. Often, it isn’t our role to convince or convert. When it isn’t, don’t. Your role is to give the gift. If they don’t unwrap it, that’s on them. And you’d be surprised how many packages are unwrapped later, to great effect.
This is love.
When I see people avoiding giving feedback or giving partial feedback or diminishing or downplaying the input they know they need to give, here’s what I say:
“If you were that person, would you want to know what you are withholding from them? Would you prefer to be uncomfortable and informed, or comfortably uninformed?” [Pause for answer. And then this.]
“Do you feel like maybe you might want to treat them the way you would want to be treated?”
As simple as that sounds, that can be a lights-on moment. And if that isn’t enough for you, this might be the clincher.
Has it occurred to you that other people are already treating you the same way you are currently treating the people from which you are withholding? Namely, have you considered that other people are keeping you in the position of “comfortable and uninformed” because they don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, hurt your feelings, experience your reaction or emotions, or whatever?
If you would like to get that information that is being withheld from you, give what you are withholding. And give it in the way you’d want it to be given to you. Give what you want to receive, in the way you would want to receive it.
How is that? How would you want to receive it? Well, I don’t know. But I can tell you what I want:
- Direct — No beating around the bush. That prolongs the discomfort and awkwardness and fear.
- Straightforward — Spin confuses me, makes me wonder whether what you are saying is or isn’t a big deal. Whether you believe it or not. Whether you think I’m too weak to take it.
- Unmitigated — At the end of our conversation, do not confuse the heck out of me by making excuses for me and trying to make me feel better. If you do that, I leave confused. I’m left wondering, “Is it bad, or not?” Let me be in the messiness and sort it out for myself. That liminal space lets me fall within and get a feeling for what might be going on. The liminal space is precious to me. Don’t rob me of it.
- Complete — When you withhold part of what you know you need to say, a part of me senses that withholding. Then I feel even more worried. Often this is unconscious on my part. Deep down, I’m wondering whether I can trust you. How much worse is it? Or I feel confused. It feels like there’s more, but you aren’t saying it. So maybe not. I’m confused. I don’t know.
- Timely — The sooner, the better, before it is a big deal or before you are so fed up with me that you can’t treat me like a person. Which brings me to this last point.
- With kindness — If you are cold or harsh are cutting or mean or angry, you scare me. You put me in my limbic area, and I can’t hear, process, and figure out what to do with the feedback. If your heart is open towards me, I may feel uncomfortable, but at least I won’t feel unsafe. I can work with discomfort. Unsafe is more challenging.
This isn’t complicated, is it? This is unconditional love in action. This is the way I want to be treated: total honesty, with kindness, with timeliness.
It isn’t more complicated than treating others the way we want to be treated. If you aren’t treating others the way you want to be treated, you may be duplicitous. And if you are, you will know it at some level. You will likely be violating your values, like honesty, love, and compassion. When we violate our values, we diminish ourselves.
Yesterday I was meeting with six people who meet twice a month to support one another in their personal development. Ben (not his real name) shared this:
His boss had just told Ben that he was being moved from his current position to another position because “leadership wasn’t satisfied with his performance.” This was the first he’d heard of any shortfall in performance, and he was crestfallen. Hurt. Angry. Confused. And crestfallen.
His cohort went down with him. They care about him. They know him to be a solid person with a solid track record who is as earnest as the day is long. It seemed like such an outrage. So it isn’t surprising that peoples’ reactions started there. But we didn’t stay there.
Staying in victim is a fool’s game. We had work to do, and we set to it.
As we worked with it, teased it out, looked at options, expanded perception, explored possible next actions, considered the clues Ben missed, etc., the mood shifted. Then one of Ben’s colleagues said,
“Oh my gosh. I just realized that I’m treating people who I supervise the same way you got treated. The way that is upsetting me right now. Sure, what I’m doing doesn’t seem as egregious…”
He trailed off, paused, then said,
“Aren’t we all doing this, in some way, shape, or form?”
And the penny dropped. No one could really cast a stone. Every one had work to do. Each of them left that conversation with conversations to be had. They committed to go act in the way they wish Ben would have been treated. In the manner they would want to be treated.
Let’s redefine kindness, shall we? Let’s define kindness to include being totally honest with people, giving them what they need to know as soon as they need to know it, with an open heart. With their best interests in mind. Trust that they can handle it. Trust that they can recover from not handling it if they don’t handle it very well at first.
Let’s not stop with complaining that this is happening around us. Let’s fix the extent to which we are perpetuating it ourselves. With our friends and family. With our spouses and partners. With our co-workers and the people we supervise.
Let everyone sweep in front of their own door, and the whole world will be clean.” Goethe
Broom up. With me. Make it a good week. And thanks for being here.