Tell It Like It Is – And Make It Count
Author: Autumn Heartsong
“I’m not a pussy-foot Pagan; I speak my mind I don’t care if everybody gets mad at me.”
“I call it like I see it. If you’ve got a lousy attitude I’m going to tell you about it. That’s what makes me such a terrific high priestess.”
“I hate that we’re not friends anymore. I was just trying to help and she got so angry.”
Know any of these people? Maybe you’ve made one of those statements yourself.
There’s no doubt that honest feedback is helpful. People with the skill and willingness to provide good feedback are valuable in any community. Unfortunately, some people are long on willingness and short on skill. They tell it like they think it is, like they wish it were, like they hope it will be, but without the skill needed to make all that telling count for something. Some succeed handily in expressing their opinions and making people angry, and they excel at turning angry reactions into badges of honor. They may even feel a little smug when they tell everyone exactly what they’re doing wrong and no one does anything about it. There’s a lot of moral superiority in being the one with the answers and even more intellectual smugness when no one else is smart enough to take your good advice. More often, though, people are just sad and disappointed when their attempt to help is, at best, rejected or, at worst, creates angry confrontation and lasting resentment.
Why should we care about the effectiveness of our communications? Because honest, helpful feedback is essential to any community. Whether you’re addressing your circle, your coworkers, your family, or the customer service rep with whom you’re trying to resolve a problem, clear, effective communication gets the best results.
Nowhere is the need for good feedback skills more evident than in our spiritual communities. In a spiritual path that stresses personal accountability, each of us is responsible not just for what we say but how we say it. If we truly have the best interest of another in mind, we have a responsibility to do the best job we can when we offer constructive criticism or positive feedback. And for those who hold positions of leadership, the ability to guide a coven or circle is directly tied to the ability to effectively deal with behaviors that can erode the group’s foundation, as well as to offer praise that is meaningful and encourages continued success. Yet time and again, circles and covens undergo major upheavals over poorly thought-out and badly delivered feedback. Broader communities experience rifts that all but destroy those communities. Online groups explode into flame wars over emails that set out to improve some situation but miss the mark. Best friends have walked away from each other over what was meant to be helpful guidance but was delivered and received as anything but helpful. The phrase heard most often after such events is, “What just happened?”
Fortunately, willingness to engage in feedback is more than half the battle, and anyone with a sincere desire to tell it like it is and make it count can learn how to give feedback that is both honest and helpful. Whether you’re telling someone that their habitual Pagan Standard Time arrival for ritual is impacting the group or complimenting them on the stellar job they did organizing the community clean-up event, you will create more impact with a well crafted and delivered message.
In this article, I’ll discuss the characteristics of effective feedback. I’ll also outline models for giving honest, direct feedback with candor and skill. Finally, I’ll share a model for how we receive feedback to help us understand and plan for reactions in others and ourselves.
For those of you who are thinking, “This isn’t standard Pagan essay material, ” I respectfully disagree. This is EGM – Elbow Grease Magick, physical effort to accompany your energetic contribution in your community. Just as doing a “find a job” spell without sending out a resume or filling out an application isn’t likely to land you employment, opening your mouth to deliver constructive feedback without paying attention to how you do it isn’t likely to net the results you hope for. By combining a willing spirit with proven techniques, we can strengthen our relationships and our communities.
Characteristics of Effective Feedback
Think back to a time when you received truly helpful feedback from someone – maybe a teacher, a boss, a coworker or friend. What made it helpful? If you’re like most people, your recollections will include some or all of the following:
They were specific and used examples.
Vague feedback isn’t very helpful. Telling someone, “You need to do better in circle, ” doesn’t offer any clues as to what “better” means. “Your ritual robe has a wine stain on it from when you dropped the chalice at our last moon. You should make sure your robe is clean before you come to circle, ” is more effective. Likewise, “You’re such a joy to work with, ” doesn’t give the recipient any guidance on how to continue to be a joy. Try, “I enjoy working with you on community projects because you’re energetic, detail oriented, and always willing to pitch in wherever needed.”
They focused on behavior, not a personal attack.
Telling someone, “You’re a slob!” is far less effective than, “You left your feast gear unwashed on the counter and Moondrop had to clean up after you.”
They were sincere, had my best interest at heart.
Sincerity is often a matter of perception. Body language and tone can speak louder than our words. It’s estimated that in face-to-face communications as little as seven percent of a message is perceived from the actual words. (Read Radical Collaboration, by James W. Tamm and Ronald J. Luyet) .
They helped me understand why it was important.
Everyone receiving feedback asks, at some level, “So what?” When we include the why, the what has more impact. “When you’re late for ritual, feast runs late, the children get hungry and cranky, and everyone’s enjoyment of the evening is lessened.” The why can also include the benefits of change or the consequences of continued behavior. “In the future, we’ll have to start without you if you’re late.”
They included suggestions for improvement or alternate behavior.
If a behavior is causing problems, suggest a better behavior. “We need you to be here at least 15 minutes before ritual is scheduled to begin.”
They chose an appropriate time/place.
Common wisdom suggests that we correct privately and praise publicly. While public praise isn’t always necessary, constructive criticism is almost always best done privately. An embarrassed person is not receptive.
They kept their emotions in check.
If you cannot control you own emotions when delivering feedback, the message will be lost. Crying and anger are sometimes understandable reactions to bad behavior, but get them under control before you enter into dialog about the behavior. If you lose your cool, you lose control.
Models for delivering feedback
Two models provide specific steps to help craft and deliver effective feedback.
NORMS is a model for crafting your message and helps ensure that you’re focusing on behavior and that your feedback is specific. This should be your first step every time to make sure your feedback is behavior focused. NORMS is an acronym for five attributes of objective feedback.
N – Not an interpretation. Address the behavior, not how you interpret the behavior. “You’ve been late for the last three circles, ” is behavior. “You don’t have enough respect for me, your coven, or the gods to show up on time, ” is an interpretation.
O – Observable. Address behavior that can be seen, heard, or otherwise observed by more than one person.
R – Reliable. Goes along with observable. Base your feedback on reliable observations, not hearsay or conjecture.
M – Measurable. Address behavior in terms of how many, how long, etc. Avoid absolutes like never and always. Use actual numbers, times, etc., whenever possible.
S – Specific. Address specific behaviors and cite specific examples.
DISC is a model for delivering your message and is an acronym for four steps to ensure that your message conveys both what and why, offers suggested alternative behavior, and identifies benefits/consequences.
D – Describe the behavior. Describe the behavior you identified using the NORMS model. Include measurements and observations when possible.
I – Identify the impact. Why is this behavior a problem? How is it impacting the individual, you, or the group?
S – Specify what you would like to see. Suggest alternate behavior or ways to improve.
C – Clarify the benefits/consequences. What will the individual gain by changing behavior? What are the consequences if she doesn’t change?
Putting it together
Scenario: Oak Moon, a member of your coven, wears a strong patchouli oil fragrance. Three coveners have commented on it and at least one covener, Starlight, is asthmatic and has difficulty breathing when she stands next to Oak Moon in circle.
Using NORMS, you focus only on the behavior – wearing strong fragrance that bothers others in circle. The strong fragrance is easily observable by anyone present and has been reliably observed by other coveners. It is measurable – three coveners have spoken up about it. You’ve made your message specific – the strength of the patchouli oil fragrance and its effect on other coveners is the issue.
Delivering the message using DISC might sound like this:
Describe: “Oak Moon, your patchouli oil is a lovely, strong fragrance – sometimes a bit too strong for the closeness of circle. Three people have come to me because the fragrance bothers them when we’re in circle, including Starlight.”
Identify: “You may not know that Starlight is asthmatic and has trouble breathing around strong fragrances.”
Specify: “Could you skip the patchouli when we’re in circle?”
Clarify: “It will let everyone breathe easier and focus more on what’s happening in the circle.”
The DISC model works well with positive feedback, too. Here’s an example:
Describe: “Oak Moon, you did an exceptional job on the essay you sent to WitchVox last month. The organization was excellent, and your analogies really helped me understand your point of view.”
Identify: “Sharing experience and thoughts with others helps our larger community grow and sets a good example for newer members of the coven.”
Specify: “I hope you’ll write more articles in the future.”
Clarify: “You’ll probably get a lot of comments and make some good contacts from your writing.”
Receiving feedback – the SARAH Model
So far, our examples have all been delivering feedback with no response from the person receiving. Of course, the person receiving will respond, and anticipating and preparing for the reaction is part of the effective feedback process.
SARAH is an acronym for five stages people go through when receiving constructive feedback. In addition to helping us deliver effective feedback, SARAH also helps us when we’re on the receiving end of constructive criticism. Recognizing our reaction can help us move more quickly through the stages and get the most benefit from the feedback.
S – Shock. “What? You’ve got to be kidding? I can’t believe anyone would say that about me!”
A – Anger. “How dare she! Who does she think she is? She’s got no right to talk to me that way. It’s none of her business.”
R – Rejection. “Well, that’s just stupid. She doesn’t know everything and I don’t need her advice.”
A – Acceptance. “Well, she did say it…and maybe there’s some truth in it.”
H – Help. “I can see her point. Maybe I’ll try her suggestions and see what happens.”
Do you recognize your own reactions? Have you experienced those reactions from others? When planning your feedback, take some time to anticipate the reactions and think about how you will respond. How can you keep the conversation on track? By thinking through the possible conversation ahead of time, you can avoid being caught off guard by emotional response from the recipient.
What if they just won’t listen?
It’s important to note that people don’t always get through all five stages. Shock, anger, and rejection may be as far as it goes. What do you do when your best efforts fail to produce results?
Perhaps the best advice is an adaptation of The Fourfold Way by Angeles Arrien:
Speak your truth.
Let go of the outcome.
You’ve shown up when you care enough to give feedback. You’ve paid attention when you learn and practice effective feedback skills. Once you’ve spoken your truth, the rest is up to the recipient. Let go of the outcome and let the recipient process your message and do with it what they will. For every friendship that is lost because someone gets angry over feedback they’ve received, another is lost because the person giving the feedback becomes angry and frustrated when their good counsel isn’t taken. Don’t let that happen to you.
Thanks for reading this far. I hope you’ll consider applying these skills in your interactions. Sharing our love for each other with honest, candid, effective feedback is a great gift. May all your efforts be blessed and rewarded.