No one is a stranger to the importance of feedback, myself included. The most helpful feedback I ever received was twenty-five years ago, soon after I left South Africa to attend graduate school in the USA. I brought with me a strong competitive spirit and a determination to graduate in the top ten percent of my class. Consequently, I didn’t hesitate to fully engage in class discussions and debates.
My favorite first-semester class focused on interpersonal skills. One afternoon, during a discussion on giving feedback, a fellow student turned to me and declared, in front of the entire class, “The problem with you is that you love the sound of your own voice.”
Ouch! The fact that it was delivered for all to hear compounded my embarrassment. To be honest, I was tempted to punch him—but it was an interpersonal skills class, so I bit my tongue instead.
Although I consciously avoided appearing defensive, I mounted a valiant defense in my head. He’s wrong, I remember telling myself. He just wants to embarrass me in front of my peers. I went home that night and told my wife about the incident. I expected understanding. I expected her to tell me he was wrong, that I was just doing my part in the course and that other students should step up if they didn’t like it. I expected her to reinflate my ego.
I was mistaken.
When I told her what my classmate had said, her only comment was, “And that surprised you?”
Try as I might to dismiss what had happened, the sting of the original feedback, as well as my wife’s comment, wouldn’t let me forget. Eventually, I had to consider, What if there are other classmates who see me the same way?
Soon after, my anger cooled and I began to try a different approach in class discussions. I stopped being the first one to voice an opinion; I started listening more. Because of my competitive nature, I found it something of a challenge, but the results spurred me on. The quieter students began participating more in class and I discovered that they often made the most insightful comments. I’d like to think they were pleased with the change I had made. The truth is, I was the primary beneficiary; I learned more when I listened more. I changed a little and gained a lot.
The criticism I got twenty-five years ago helped me enormously. It taught me that those who listen more, talk less and let others voice their opinions before voicing their own get a lot more creativity, ownership and productivity from those around them. And because the criticism I received was delivered so poorly, it helped me understand that all feedback has the power to help us reach our goals—regardless of how it’s delivered.