The Muselet #41: Nonviolent Feedback

One of the key ideas of Nonviolent Communication is to remove judgmentfrom our language when we want to communicate constructively. I gave an example of this in Judgment is a Silent Killer:

I shared feedback with a customer on our cooperation thus far  —  all intended as very constructive. However, I made a mistake: I slipped in one piece of judgement, and that ended up being the only thing being heard by the customer.

What did I say? I mentioned I felt that certain issues with a team were exaggerated. I did explain this was a natural result of the way things were communicated between our organizations, and that this was the real issue to be addressed, but already during the call I sensed that that part wasn’t heard at all. And indeed, after receiving a summary email about the call, it appeared they primarily heard “exaggerated,” the rest was just noise.

What happened here? This was “violent communication” at work:

Whenever there is negative judgement in your communication, people will fail to hear anything else.

You may still sit on your “well, people shouldn’t be so sensitive and get over themselves” high horse. That’s one way of looking at it, but as I’ve argued in the past, if you want to communicate effectively, ultimately it doesn’t matter what you say, it only matters what people hear.

If you care more about being effectivethan being technically right, I think it’s valuable to take the unintended effects of judgment seriously. Very seriously.

So, what do I mean with negative judgmental language? Some examples:

  • exaggerated

  • bad, sucks, terrible

  • insensitive

  • selfish

  • lazy

  • not capable

  • unresponsive

  • manipulated

  • just (e.g. “just 5 tests”)

On the other side there is also positivejudgmental language, which is also harmful, but usually less immediately so. 

Examples of positive judgments are: good, excellent, amazing, best thing since sliced bread, or something as simple as “I like it.”

In No More Praise I referred to the addictive aspects of (public) praise, and I suspect we may be at risk with positive judgment in feedback in general:

I’m concerned about how much of a “drug” this becomes. I notice this in myself. In certain contexts I’m sometimes called out in this type of way. Absolutely, it feels good when that happens. So good, in fact, that I notice myself hoping that certain meetings head into a direction where I may be called out again, and almost feel disappointed when I’m not. That’s pretty shitty. Public praise is addictive.And addiction never leads to anything good.

As Jesper Juul argues in the context of raising children, but the same applies to adults as well: if people get used to a constant stream of “good / bad” “more of this / less of that” type of feedback, for adults sometimes tied to monetary value (like bonuses or raises), we become more and more extrinsically motivated. We may lose our intrinsic motivation, and our motivation levels and our self image become largely dependent on how other people judge us. That’s not a great place to be. 

As a result, judgmental feedback becomes like a drug. And drugs are prone to inflation. If I call something somebody did “good” one time, will just “good” suffice next time? Or should it be “very good”, and then “excellent” and then “awesome” and then “the best thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life” and then… not sure?

So, any feedback that includes judgment we shall henceforth call violent feedback, much in line with nonviolent communication in general.

So what’s the alternative?

True Zef’s Musings fans will immediately yell “impactback!” And indeed, I described this idea some time ago. But I also acknowledged back then that impactback may have a branding problem. And this proved right, because I hear few people referring to it today. That’s enough impactback for me to take the hint — thanks world! So I’m trying this again by naming it “Nonviolent Feedback.” Same concept, different name. You’re welcome.

But I digress.

The simplest alternative to violent feedback is no feedback at all. However, I realized that being completely feedback deprived is a bit like talking to a wall. Or in my case, like writing letters to Santa. I hope he enjoys them, but I never hear back. And it makes me feel a bit insecure. Did Santa get any value out of all the letters I wrote to him?

You can self-reflect all you want, but many of the things we do in my profession (management) aren’t that easily tracked day-to-day on a KPI dashboard. It’s extremely useful to get at least hints on if something is happening.

Essentially what I need is a system that roughly looks as follows:

  1. I take some action, e.g. forward an email, say something during a meeting — you know, management stuff

  2. I need to understand the impactthis action has on people

  3. I then need to decide whether to adapt my approach based on whether the impact found in step 2 has had the (to me) desired effect

  4. GOTO 1

You could describe this as some sort of cycle where the end feeds back into the beginning. But what to call it...

🤔

All joking aside, there’s a subtle difference with common feedback practice in this loop: in most feedback loops step 2 generally isn’t “clean” data. It tends to come with judgement as mentioned before: good, bad; above expectations, below expectations.

Here’s a classic violent feedback example:

In that meeting you publicly disagreed with me. How dare you! Never do that again!

The judgement: disagreeing with me in public is bad bad bad. Thumbs down. No no.

That aspect is the potentially “toxic” part. Sure, if this feedback is coming from your boss, it’s worth to listen, but perhaps it’s better not to act on it. Your boss may not like your public disagreement, but is not speaking up in the company’s best interest?

As a feedback receiver, the input signal that I need is the impact my action had, not the judgement. I, in turn, will then be able to judge if this was satisfactory or not. Your boss not being happy being disagreed with is just one such impact signal, but perhaps the impact your disagreement had on others made it all worth it.

So... what I need is judgement-free feedback, which I shall dub nonviolent feedback

Here is the format for nonviolent feedback:

  1. Describe the situation/action in question

  2. Describe the impact it had on you, others, the environment

“When you disagreed with me in that meeting (1), I got angry because I felt it undermined my authority (2).”

“Ever since you gave that talk about Cypress (1), I’ve noticed many more engineers add end-to-end tests to their code (2).”

“Whenever you lean back eating your sandwich (1), mom and dad have a lot more bread crumbs to clean from the floor (2).”

“When you called me an doody head (1) it made me feel teary tear (2).”

No judgement, just observations and impact. It’s for the receiving end to figure out how to use this input, to judge if the impact is desired or not.