Feedback: The Key to Improving Ourselves and Others


As Elder Sterling W. Sill states in the preceding article, “Everyone can learn to [lead] effectively if he will work at it continually.”

Continual effort is required to properly and positively utilize one important element in leadership: feedback. Great strength can come from knowing how to give and receive feedback.

As examples of this process, let us examine four common cases.

1. A family experiences unpleasantness and conflict in the morning. The children are often late for school, despite the mother’s reminding them of the late hour. Friction occurs between the mother and the children. She ends up driving them to school, but reminds them on the way of the hardship it creates for her to take time to drive them to school.

2. A Church teacher notices that attendance at his class is sharply dropping. Those who come are often late. During the class, the people act bored and uninvolved.

3. A husband observes his wife behaving in a distant manner toward him. She seems to be moody and upset often.

4. A five-year-old girl lacks self-confidence in her abilities. When her parents attempt to teach her to do something, she makes a fleeting effort, then quits, saying, “I can’t do it!”

Based on basic principles about improving human behavior, the following actions can be taken in these cases.

1. For the mother whose children are cranky and irritable in the morning, we should first look at her behavior toward the children. Indeed, in this case we find that her incessant nagging at the children is developing an unpleasant and angry tone in the family’s morning routine.

In a family discussion this mother is told by her children that it would be better for them if she were to stay in bed in the morning and let them get off to school by themselves. They promise to get themselves properly dressed, fix a good breakfast, and get to school on time. Her part of the contract is merely to stop nagging them.

As they implement this plan for several weeks, the entire atmosphere of the family changes. After some time, the children suggest to their mother that she join them in the morning provided she promise not to revert to the former practice of nagging them. This approach was actually tried, and it worked successfully.

2. The teacher finally generates sufficient courage to find out what is going wrong in his class. At one class he distributes a questionnaire to those in attendance, asking them to indicate how they have felt about the previous class periods and what suggestions they might have for improvement. The questions include asking for their reaction to the content of the class, the manner in which it has been taught, the relevance of the material to their needs, and their suggestions for improvement.

Among the suggestions the leader receives are: prepare the lesson well in advance, allow time for those in attendance to bring up problems facing them, shorten the amount of time the leader takes talking to them, allow more time for discussion on important topics. The results of implementing these changes are quite dramatic. Class members come with greater enthusiasm, in greater numbers, and feel increasingly rewarded for their attendance.

3. The husband and wife who feel themselves becoming more distant from each other meet with their bishop to discuss what has been happening between them. They discuss the need for spending time alone, at least one evening per week, and for having a longer time period alone together each month or six weeks. He also discusses with them their need to develop additional common activities that both enjoy. They decide to take an evening class together. Definite improvement is felt in the relationship, though both recognize much more that can be done to make the relationship what it once was.

4. The child who lacks confidence and gives up too easily begins to respond when her mother gently and lovingly transmits the message, “You are really capable, and I am not going to do these things for you that you can do yourself.” The mother takes the time to reinforce the child’s progress. She passes on to her daughter a remark from a friend who has a daughter, Sharon, the same age as her girl. “Sharon really likes you and wants you to be her friend. I hope you will go out of your way to be nice to her. You know, people really do seem to like you.” The mother notices that when this type of message is periodically given to her child, her withdrawal and feelings of inferiority diminish.

What is the common element in these cases? The fundamental procedure used to bring about improvement in behavior is called feedback. In each case, what the person has been missing is essential information about his performance that lets him see where he is going awry. Imagine driving a car with no gauges to show speed, number of miles traveled, warning signals about the oil pressure and electrical system. In driving a car, a person receives feedback from checking such indicators and from seeing how turning the steering wheel or pressing on the accelerator changes the position of the vehicle. Take away this essential feedback and it would be impossible to drive.

Yet many of us seem to go through many phases of our life—relationships with family and those with whom we work at our jobs or in the Church—without the benefit of feedback on our behavior.

When we arise in the morning, most of us look into a mirror to comb our hair or see if our clothes are on properly. It is almost impossible to determine this without seeing ourselves in a mirror. In psychological and behavioral terms, we need to construct mirrors that allow us to monitor our behavior with the same precision. Our personal effectiveness is probably proportional to the number of feedback gauges we have and our willingness to pay attention to what they are saying.

How do we get feedback on our behavior? First, we must sincerely want it. While it can occur without our asking, we often reject the message or behave in a defensive manner that essentially blocks any further attempts at feedback. Our behavior in response to feedback must be nondefensive if we wish to get more information.

It is extremely important to note, however, that the purpose of feedback is not just to change negative behavior. Much feedback is designed to lift up, encourage, help people see how good they really are, how much they are loved and appreciated, and what they are capable of becoming. The Savior illustrated this quality in the feedback he provided to his disciples. He lifted them to great heights by simply saying, “Come, I will make you fishers of men.” It is this quality of treating men as if they were now what they can ultimately become that allowed the Savior to transform the lives of men.

Feedback is essential in all human interaction. No one enjoys dealing with those whose feelings cannot be discerned.

The process of getting good feedback requires deliberate effort. It begins with really wanting to know how we affect others. Once having decided we want some feedback, we then need to find the right way and an appropriate time. The process begins with asking the right questions of the right people.

For instance, a father might ask his children in a family home evening, “What if you were a magician and could wave your magic wand over our family and make three changes. What would they be?” Then he waits for the response. Several lessons in the family home evening manual are designed to facilitate this process of feedback in the family.

Feedback may be obtained from a child while lying down with him at bedtime. With the lights out and no other distractions, the sincere questions of a parent are almost always answered. “What could I do to help you?” “How could I be a better father to you?”

For a small child, a piece of paper and crayon may provide a tool for feedback when accompanied by the request, “Draw a picture of our family.” Then the child is asked, “Explain it to me, will you?”

There are many ways for a husband and wife to obtain feedback. Asking your mate to list the ten most important things he or she wants to accomplish in the next few years can be a good first step. Asking, “What can I do to make your life more fulfilling?” is apt to elicit useful information. Asking, “What do I do that irritates you—either intentionally or unintentionally?” may also provide useful feedback. One husband asked, “Do you know of someone you think has a marriage better than ours?” When told by his wife that she did, he then asked, “What do you think makes it better?”

Seeking feedback from our associates with whom we work in any organization just makes good sense. Some leaders pause at the end of each meeting to take a few minutes to critique the quality of the meeting. Elder Parley P. Pratt suggested in his book Seventy’s Key to Theology that there be a time at the end of each class for the teacher to receive a critique from the class. What a difference that could make in the teaching of many instructors!

A teacher may wish to pass out a reaction sheet to students. He might also go privately to someone he knows to be open and candid. “How could I make our class better?” “What are the things you like the best about this class?” “What are some things that I could do that I am not doing?” “What are the things I do that detract from the quality of the class?” Notice, however, that the teacher or leader has to seek feedback. We have been schooled in our society to withhold feedback. It generally comes out reluctantly, and only when people are certain that the asker sincerely wants it.

Perhaps the absence of feedback results because we do not know the principles of providing feedback to others. Because feedback can be done in a harmful way or with hurtful results, many do not want to attempt it. Here are some rules for giving feedback:

Some Rules for Giving Feedback

1. Your motive needs to be one of intending to help the other person. If you are giving feedback in anger or out of a desire to hurt the other person, then do not say anything.

2. The feedback must be capable of being understood and accepted by the listener, and he must be in a frame of mind in which feedback would be helpful. For instance, if you do not like how a meeting is being conducted, do not stand up and state your objections in the middle of the meeting; the leader would be apt to be defensive and reject your comments. However, by going to the leader in private to discuss your views, you may make your feedback acceptable and productive.

3. The person must be able to do something about your feedback.

4. The feedback must be concrete and specific.

5. Avoid labeling. A person should not be labeled as a “nagger” or “grouch,” nor should a child be told that he has an “inferiority complex.” Pinning a label of something on someone often has the tendency of reinforcing it, rather than changing it. Further, the label does not accurately reflect the specific incident that you are trying to change.

6. Avoid making value judgments. It is much more helpful to describe behavior than to tell someone that what they did is good or bad. Avoid telling people what they should be or ought to be, and instead help them to discover what they are and what they do. They deserve to know how their behavior affects us, but the decision to change should be theirs.

7. A void dumping large loads on people. Feedback should come in portions that people can absorb. Most of us can assimilate and benefit from candid information if it is presented in a loving and kindly way in nice “bite sizes” over a time period.

Why does feedback work? As we grow up we develop a concept of our self, as a result of our own observations and what we think others think of us. The mother in the first case probably saw herself as concerned, caring, conscientious, dedicated. Then she gets feedback from persons close to her that she is nagging, abrasive, and doesn’t respect the children’s dignity. This information, which is contrary to her self-concept, presents a real dilemma. Either she must change the way she sees herself or she must change her behavior. For most of us it is easier to change our behavior than to change self-concepts.

One reason why we may be reluctant to share our honest reactions to the behavior of others is that we fear what we might receive in turn. Experience, however, has shown that honest feedback is seldom as painful as people expect it to be.

Another reason for little honest feedback in our society is that people are often embarrassed by positive feedback. Thus, they insulate themselves from the warmth and caring that honest feedback could provide.

Yet, to improve our behavior we need accurate information. If we are to have any understanding of ourselves as leaders, as spouses, as parents, or as fellow human beings, we must know how our behavior affects others. That is the only way to know ourselves better and to improve ourselves.