The contemplative Practice of Giving and Receiving Feedback (A handout at the Psychology of Awakening course, at the Schumacher College, Devon, November 1998)
In meditative practice, we become mindful of our own experience, on our own, in the receiving and giving of feedback, we have the opportunity to become mindful of how our behaviour is perceived by others and to let others know how we perceive theirs. We can bring the same attitudes to the sharing of feedback that are recommended for our meditation practice: gentleness, precision and openness.
The following guidelines are intended to help you give and receive feedback in a way which makes both the receiving and giving of feedback mindful practices. The purpose of these practices is to enable us to become more aware. Their purpose is not to get ourselves or another person to change in accordance with our desires and preconceptions.
In general, if a person is able to make use of feedback, then he or she is able to learn. If a person consistently discounts or rejects feedback, he or she is not able to benefit fully from learning in a community context. It is the single most important skill to develop in training to be a person who can be of service to others.
Guidelines for the Recipient of Feedback:
1. Have an open mind. Pay attention to simply hearing what is said. Do not assume you already know what the person means. If you need to, ask for clarification.
2. Do not explain. Your job is to hear how the other person experiences you. Resist the impulse to justify, defend or explain yourself.
3. Be curious about your own state of mind. Notice what arises in your mind as you listen to feedback, both to positive feedback and negative feedback.
4. Regard all feedback as an offering. In the Mahayana tradition, there is a slogan which says: “Be grateful to everyone”. The idea is to appreciate the opportunity to learn and develop which the generosity of the other person is providing for you.
5. Contemplate what you have heard. Bring your basic intelligence to what you have heard. Do not assume that the other person’s view is more or less accurate than your own. Neither grasp onto nor reject what you have heard. Discover what is useful for you in the feedback. Do not quickly change your behaviour based on what you have heard.
6. Practice the slogan: “Three objects, three poisons, three virtuous seeds”. Recognise that whatever feelings arise in you are your own. Free them from the object and work with them mindfully.
Guidelines for the Giver:
1. Have the intention to be of benefit. Wrong intention is: a) Giving feedback as a way of getting rid of your own discomfort. Do not use feedback as a way to dump your negativity on someone else. b) “Therapeutic aggression”: the tendency to try to change another person. It is based on rejecting the other person as he or she is. Its intention is usually to make the giver him or herself feel better. c) Giving positive feedback so the person will like you.
2. Be a clean mirror. Be descriptive, not interpretive. Giving feedback is like holding up a mirror for someone else. Try to keep your personal opinions and concerns out of your message. Do not give advice in the guise of feedback. Emphasise ‘what’ rather than ‘why’. Describe behaviour, speech, your own reactions. Do not be judgmental.
3. Present a balanced view. Pay attention to giving both positive and negative feedback.
4. Put yourself in the other person’s place. Consider the readiness of the other person to make use of what you have to say. Pick your time and place in a way which shows respect to the other person.
5. Be specific rather than general. Describe specific behaviour, not your general impression of the person. Refer to specific instances whenever possible. Don’t get diverted into unrelated matters.
6. Own your own experience. Describe your reaction to the other person’s behaviour, acknowledging it as your own. Do not blame. Share your reaction as information, not as pressure to make the other person change.
7. Be direct and fearless. You may feel uncomfortable to say something unpleasant to the person. Remember your intention to be helpful. Keeping information from the person may be more harmful than telling them.
8. Say your piece and let it go. Do not be attached to what the person does with your feedback. Let it be an offering.
Mindfulness of Speech:
Obstacles: Embarrassment and pride.
1. Listen to oneself. Listen to your speech: the way you speak, the way you use words.
2. Listen to the speech of others. Listen to the vowels, the consonants and the speed.
3. Make a conscious effort to slow down speaking.
4. Enunciate clearly. Respect the words you use.
5. Simplicity. Choose words well. Avoid unnecessary words. Minimize.
6. Silence. Regard silence as part of speech. Don’t be afraid to wait before speaking.