Giving critical feedback without assaulting identity

“A nice follow on might be how to give critical feedback without assaulting another’s identity. Not easily done, possibly an art and not a science.”

–Subscriber replying to Thicker Skin May Not Be the Answer

Well said.

Science proves it’s an art. That’s because neuroscience has shown that you cannot possibly know the triggers of identity before giving feedback. So here are some options:

  • Assess biological feedback while giving live feedback. Test something small before something heavy. Earn trust by giving extremely specific feedback. Their biological feedback loop will tell you what you need to know, if you’re watching closely. If you sense overwhelm, stop. Giving feedback after that point is fueling your own identity.
  • Have honest, true intent, and take the risk. You can’t be responsible for reactions. If your intent really was noble and well-intentioned, then the reaction isn’t your responsibility. On Friday I decimated a guy’s resume and wondered what he’d do—he gushed his thanks, when I half expected the opposite.
  • Don’t tie your identity to your feedback. If the listener is expected to agree with you they may fake it so you feel good, but you should try and avoid creating an “I’m right, you must change” dynamic. Tricky tricky! Your “I’m a saint for giving feedback” and “I’m right about this” and “I see clearly” and “I have experience and am insightful” identities all are at risk for getting triggered.

This situation is so tricky it reminds me of some Solomon cryptic advice: “rebuke a fool according to his folly…” being right before “don’t rebuke a fool according to his folly, lest you become like him.”

Here’s my rephrase attempt: “If you have noble intent and can avoid your own identity triggers, closely watch the one who trusts you to give feedback to determine whether your feedback is creating any value. If it’s not, then stop.”


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