FEEDBACK – ‘What’ and ‘How’ to change?

It’s been over 30 years I’ve been coaching people on the ways to “Give and Receive Feedback”.  I remember about 15 years ago my wife asked me “Do you think you have been practicing what you teach on feedback yourself?”

This came out of nowhere and got me thinking.  I always felt that I was open to feedback and used to take corrective action whenever I got the critical one’s.  I have been very particular about using ‘feedback’ as a tool for my professional growth and that’s been my secret to success professionally.  I presumed that it would be the same at home as well.

However, I thought it’s time I put it to test.

Most of us do not use structured approaches towards aspects like feedback, assertiveness, listening, openness and trust etc. at home.  We don’t feel it is necessary and brush it aside by making statements like “Come on this is home and we don’t have to be very formal”; “Personal relationships cannot be compared and is not same as working in a professional environment” etc.

We fail to realize that irrespective of the place where you are, the personality (that’s you) and your communication behaviors are consistent and remain the same.  The problem is that we live in denial all the time.  I’ve heard most of my participants in leadership and team workshops tell me that I am a different person at home and not at all like the way people perceive me in office.

My question is “Do you ever sit down and formally take feedback at home?”  “Do you think it is necessary at all?”  I would say try and you will be surprised.

Husband and wife talking

Anyway, coming back to my wife’s query, I thought it’s time I asked her to provide me with some feedback.  To make it more meaningful and easy for her,  I asked her to write down all the critical feedback she had for me and place it on my table.  Now you may ask, why does she have to write down, can’t she tell you directly?

The problem is that more often than not and especially at home, we take relationships at home casually and for granted.  The moment we get some critical feedback, we would like to quickly close the conversation lest it turn ugly.  We prefer to avoid conflict and live in the make believe world that everything is hunky-dory.  In fact we are conditioned from early childhood to believe the idea of a “happy married life” isn’t it?  We cannot imagine therefore that marriages can have conflicts, disagreements and critical conversations.  I myself have been guilty of quickly bringing difficult conversations to a close.  I think I was one of those kinds.

When I got the list the next day, I saw that there were about 20 items which I had to work on and was causing discomfort to my wife.  The top of the list on number one was that “I keep my workspace at home very disorganized and dirty, with a suggestion that I need to keep it clean”

I thought great, let me start with the first one and then I don’t have to worry about the rest.  For about a week I ensured that I spent a great deal of time keeping my workspace neat and clean.  Then I asked her for some feedback after a week.

Her response “Nothing has changed” angered me at first but I ‘paused’ and then I asked “but what about the office?”

“But, what about the office?” I asked. With that, she just  looked at me in disgust and walked away. What I have found since then is that, even though the cluttered appearance of my office may be a frequent grumble for my wife, its cleanliness has almost no correlation to the quality of our marriage. My office can be a disaster at the same time our marriage seems wonderful, or it can be very clean and organized even when our marriage is experiencing frustrations.

I found that the issue at the top of the list was not necessarily the most important one to change. I also found that other items on the list had a much more direct and significant correlation to the quality of our marriage. Some of these items included helping out more with our child and not being critical of my wife’s decisions and actions.

I learned from this experience that I had been paying the most attention to the things that others complained about the most or the loudest or that were at the top of the list. What got my attention and was complained about most frequently was not necessarily the most important issue to change.

The most critical skill in making change based on feedback is deciding what specific issue to work on first. Many feedback experiences are very similar. Often, people identify the issue that appears to be the most negative and conclude it is the most important issue to change. This is faulty logic. Issues that are most negative or most complained about are simply the ones that are most noticeable. Evaluating what issues to change ought to be a completely separate decision making process, independent from how negatively people react to issues.

In a perfect world, we would receive feedback on many issues and change everything appropriately. We would soon become perfect ourselves. But in the real world, people face limitations in terms of how many issues they can successfully address at a time. A guaranteed way to fail in making changes based on feedback is trying to change too many things at the same time.

People cannot make five major changes at the same time. In fact, whenever most people try to change more than one or two important things at once, they end up making no changes at all.

In one of our leadership programs I asked the leaders to focus their efforts on only one issue.  I found that in four months people could see a significant difference in pre and post feedback assessments.

Most people think and worry that if they focus on changing only one issues, others may not find any difference and would still end up complaining.  But my experience is that if you spread your effort in changing too many issues, may prevent people from noticing that things are changing, because they will see little difference between where you started and where you are now.  Focusing your efforts on changing one issue increases the  likelihood that others will see a difference.

The 80/20 Rule

Change is difficult. Managing expectations is key towards working the change process. It requires focused effort and attention. Most change efforts do not occur in a vacuum. We still have to complete our required work and take care of ourselves and our families.

However, focused effort on a few specific issues greatly improves the likelihood of success. It is critical that you learn how to prioritize issues discovered through feedback according to which will yield the greatest benefit. I suggest you follow the 80/20 rule.  When you start focusing on that 20% of critical feedback it should yield 80% benefit.

Remember, the people whom you ask for feedback will likely expect you to take action on all of their feedback.   Therefore, it is helpful to establish up front that, although they may provide feedback on a variety of issues, you will focus your efforts on selected issues as you work your way through the feedback. To manage these expectations, I suggest the following steps:

  • Thank the person who gave you the feedback
  • Let the person know that you may not be able to respond to every issue but their feedback is invaluable and will help you work gradually through the change process
  • State upfront that you will start by working on one or two critical issues and name the issue you are going to work on.
  • Demonstrate that you are changing

Although the people who gave you feedback would expect you to change everything, their experience tells them that little would change.  However when you make a focused effort on one or two issues, they will be able to see a significant difference and will not overly focus on issues which are not yet worked on.

How do I prioritize?

In order for your to prioritize you must rank each of the listed issues into ‘desire for change’, ‘ease of change’ and the ‘impact’.

Desire for change – The first step in bringing about change is to create a strong desire for change. As you think about the issues for which you received critical feedback, you may notice one issue for which others feel a high need for you to change, but you feel little or no need to change. How can you increase your desire or motivation to change?  It’s important that you think about the extent of motivation you have to make the change.  As you think through each of the critical feedback you received you should categorize them on ‘low’, ‘medium’ or ‘high’ motivation for you to change.  You must however not confuse others desire for change with your own intrinsic desire to change.  However in a relationship it is important to take a holistic approach.  You may want to align both so that you get the best from the change process.

We also commit the mistake of externalizing the feedback by making statements like “it’s what you feel, but I don’t think there is any need to change this”.  The problem with this kind of attitude is that it does little to contribute towards motivating you to change.

It’s like an alcoholic when asked by his counselor, whether he was an alcoholic, the man said “I don’t think I am, but my wife thinks I have a problem”.  The counselor then said “Then why don’t go and drink some more because I don’t think we can help you unless you think you have a problem”

For each negative feedback you have received you must think which one of those you are more desirous of changing.

Determine whether your desire to change is driven by you or by others

If you think that you got to change because your wife, boss or any other person is telling you, then you would have already forsaken your responsibility and will have little by way of motivation to change.  Whenever you feel “My boss thinks I need to change this, ” or, “Other people think I have a problem in this area.” In these situations, your real felt need is not to change the problem, but to change other people’s opinions about the problem.  So how then can you increase your desire to change?

Firstly you must not just be focused on the ‘negative impact’ of the issue and start reinventing the feedback by rethinking in your own mind.  Try and understand what frustrates people the most and the impact it is having on the relationship.  Have open discussions around the issue and be honest with yourself.  Most often I find that people are not motivated to change because of their lack of understanding of the impact it is having on the giver of feedback and the relationship.

But if you have to increase your motivation to change then you need to start focusing not on the ‘negative impact’ but the ‘positive impact’ which would come out of your effort. If you understand only the negative impact of your behavior and have no sense of the positive impact of change, you will find less motivation to change and therefore have a lower felt need or desire to change.

Ease of change

Some issues are easier to change than others. In planning your change process, select at least one issue you know will be easy to change. This not only gives you confidence in your ability to change, but it sends a positive signal to others that you have responded to their feedback.

Focusing on small observable actions can be a great starting point to demonstrate that you are truly committed to improving the quality of the relationship. For example, if you were to be   given frequent feedback that you are irresponsible and do not care for the team cause you always seem to arrive late to meetings.  Irresponsible is a judgment and that you cannot work on or will surely not have any motivation to work.  You may become defensive as well.  However, arriving 10 minutes before the meeting commences is a behavior you can easily exhibit and is also visible to others.  It’s a small change but can impact the overall perception of others on you.

Similarly, for my wife, giving her 1 hour of undivided attention daily and listening to her was easy to work on and it was actually that small thing which made a big positive impact.  It was the same with my Son as well.  When I started to devote 1 hour daily to have a chat with him and listening to his stories of the day, it greatly improved the quality of my relationship with him.

These small observable behaviors made a huge difference than being physically present all the time without being emotionally available.

Try to change actions than people

Most of us hit a roadblock and get frustrated in our attempts to change people.  In fact married couples expend all their energies and a lifetime trying to change each other and end up getting little by the way of outcome.

It’s easy to change what we say or do than what others do.  Changing my own action or behavior is easier than changing people. We have much more control over our thought and actions. For example, it is easy for me to arrive 10 minutes early for every meeting than trying to persuade people to wait for me before they start the meeting.  Similarly it is easy for me to decide that time in the day when I will spend time with my wife and kid than asking them to come to me when they see me free.

Work on building agreements

It’s important that you discuss openly with your significant other or the person who provided you with the feedback on issues which are absolutely critical to work on.  You may find that while prioritizing there can be disagreements on which one of the issue is more critical than the other.  However, it is important to start with points of agreement, however small they may seem.  It will provide you with quick-wins and get you a more meaningful and positive impact.


  • Do not start with more than one or two issues to work on at a time
  • Start with small actions which are easier to work on and get some quick-wins under your belt
  • Make sure others desire for change matches with your own desire for change. Do not change just because others want you to change.  In such situations the chances of success are greatly reduced
  • Find areas of mutual agreement which will show visible impact

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