What is this post about?

I have encountered multiple situations in which my own perception of my communication and behavior was not aligned with other people’s perceptions of me. Usually, you find out about these things through multiple corners when someone says: “I have heard from X that Y told Z that they think you are weird because you never greet them when you meet” (as a fictional example) or through other rumors making it to you with some delay. On the other hand, I have also been approached by closer friends and just received the feedback that they think my current behavior is suboptimal and I might want to change it. While my gut reaction in these cases often was one of self-defense (“How dare they criticize me. I am totally not doing the thing they are saying!!!11!!1!”), I had to accept that they are probably right and was very grateful for this feedback in the long run. I have also experienced that giving someone that you like feedback on a habit that you perceive as negative can be extremely hard because there is a general norm against direct communication and you are afraid of losing a good friend or at least making things awkward for a while. However, I have never encountered these worst-case scenarios. Occasionally, they didn’t share this perception. But usually, they were first surprised and then thankful that I made them aware of this particular perception or behavior. I have to point out though that I am living in a social bubble in which social feedback is more accepted than within the average society. If your social group does not share these norms, the reactions to your feedback might be vastly different.

What I therefore propose is a more direct style of communication. This includes both a more active norm of giving people feedback on their behavior and communication but also a more active norm of asking other people for their perception of both. This does not only include negative but also positive feedback.

Why is a more direct style of communication beneficial?

I understand that the examples I choose (partly personal and partly fictional) might feel a bit cringy while reading them or might induce a feeling of uneasiness because “It just feels inappropriate to give someone feedback for that behavior”. However, in all of my personal examples, either I or the other person would have greatly benefited from overcoming that original gut reaction and just criticizing or praising the other person for their behavior. If you have the same instinct, I want to ask you: “Is it just a bad feeling or is there a reason to back it up?”.

  1. Lack of knowledge: I think in many cases people are just unaware of their behavior or don’t know a certain norm exists. For example, I used to put my elbows on the table while eating. I didn’t notice that I was doing this but my friend made me aware of it and it probably removed some negative connotations about my “uncivilized behavior” when visiting her family. Another example is that a person once told me that they did not feel sufficiently appreciated during conversations, especially when they were adding something valuable. I realized that it might be very important for that person to feel more appreciated because they were not sure whether they contributed something meaningful. While it doesn’t cost me much it might mean a lot to the person receiving the appreciation. My perception of how much appreciation is good was just ill calibrated at this point. Therefore, after it was pointed out to me that I was seen as unappreciative I tried to change that. Whether I succeeded in fixing it is up for you to decide, I guess. A last example for lack of information are weird habits. I have encountered multiple situations where a person did something all the time that increasingly annoyed all others like snapping/flicking their fingers, making weird sounds or overtalking others during conversations (just to name a few). However, when someone finally told them to “stop the thing”, their reaction was: “Huh, what thing? I am not doing that thing.” until you remind them every time they are doing “the thing”. I think in most cases they are not just pretending but actually completely unaware of that habit and willing to change it if made aware. One of my bad habits is sniffling my nose. For some unexplained reason, my nose is always running just a bit. If you are around me and my sniffling annoys you, just tell me. I will likely just not have noticed.

  2. Asymmetry of assumptions of social conduct: What I mean by that is when a group of people have different standards of when to give feedback. For example, a person expects to receive feedback when they do something that the rest of the group does not like. However, all other members of the group think it is inappropriate to give feedback “for this kind of behavior” and therefore never tell them. I have witnessed this kind of behavior in multiple scenarios but I think it is best illustrated through a shared flat situation. Assume a fictional flat with three inhabitants. They all like each other most of the time and are nice to each other. However, each of them has a tick that annoys the other two: person A leaves their dishes on the counter and usually takes a while to clean them up; Person B uses up the community items (oil, salt, baking paper, etc.) in the kitchen but neither tells anyone nor re-buys them; And person C always leaves on the light when they leave. Whenever any of the other people exhibit any of their specific behavior the other two talk to each other how behavior X is so annoying but never tell them for different reasons. They might think the other person knows since “nobody would do such an obviously annoying thing without noting” or they might be afraid to ruin their relationship with that person. However, very often I have just asked the people and they told me “It is something that you should just not tell them”. When I asked the person exhibiting this behavior whether they thought the two others would complain if something was wrong they overwhelmingly thought the others would. Instead of just talking about it and solving the problem for good, people did not communicate but got annoyed by it every single time. Not only does this create a lot of unnecessary annoyance over time, but it often also leads to a lot of bad behavior. By this I mostly mean passive-aggressive behavior with plausible deniability, i.e. someone cleans the dishes in the kitchen and writes in the shared-flat group chat that they have now cleaned up all the items in the kitchen. This is sufficiently vague to be interpreted as either “I am a nice and selfless person and cleaned up all the dishes including yours!” or “I had to clean up YOUR dishes as well because you never do it yourself!” This bad behavior could be easily solved by either communicating more and more directly or just talk about the preferred way of communication once. All three people at the same time would want to know if they did something to annoy the others but also do not want to be the one breaking the harmony by calling someone out. Overall this is a bad equilibrium that can easily be fixed.

  3. Biases: The human psychology falls prey to many different biases but I think two are especially important for communication. First, we overestimate how clear we communicate certain desires to other people. The classic example would be a person saying that they are hot without a clear call to action. Often it is then assumed that someone else reads that message correctly and opens a window or turns down the heater. This example is so overused that saying “It’s warm in here, isn’t it?” has basically become synonymous with “Can someone open a window, please?”. However, most other situations are more ambiguous and therefore often do not lead to the intended result. Imagine your roommate saying “I think the living room is untidy”. This could mean “Get the fuck in there and clean up.” or “I think we should do a spring-cleaning since we have all been a bit sloppy lately.” Similarly, saying “I think someone should get the mail from outside” to their significant other could either mean “Can you please go out and get the mail, I have an important deadline to meet” or “The person that is currently less busy should get the mail”. Saying one thing but meaning another is not new in human communication. Being very explicit and direct is often helpful to actually convey what you mean to the other person and prevent miscommunication. Second, we have many subconscious mechanisms to shield ourselves from psychological harm. Being criticized for something is often seen as an attack. I think the implicit logic is often like this: Somebody says that behavior X which I showed was unethical or hurt them. I have shown behavior X for a long time because that is what I as a person do/ was raised to do. If X is bad it means I have misbehaved for a long time or am a bad person. I do not want to be a bad person. The only logical conclusion that prevents me from being bad is that my behavior is, in fact, not wrong and the other person does this for other reasons (deceit, treason, just being mean, etc.). I think we have all felt the rush of anger in the first moments of being criticized when our brain is desperately generating excuses to discredit the critic - “they don’t know what they are talking about”, “They do not really know me”, “They just want to ruin my status”, “They are just hippies doing hippie things”, “They are nazis/conservatives/leftists/communists - what do they know about life anyway”, etc. From this observation follow three conclusions: a) To accept valuable criticism we need to learn to resist the monkey in our brain that offers us the easy way out by generating reasons that discredit the critic. b) To make feedback effective it has to be explicit. Otherwise, the subconsciousness of the person receiving the feedback might mitigate, misinterpret or ignore it. c) The way feedback is phrased has to be chosen wisely to mitigate the perception that one is a bad person. This will be discussed later.

  4. Other people’s perception exists anyway: Even if you ignore the feedback of other people - be it voluntarily or involuntarily - their perceptions and opinions about you still exist. They might still feel you are grumpy, smelly, not appreciative, arrogant or maybe they just like you the way you are without you knowing about it. However, even if you do not know their criticisms you will probably still feel the results of the existing friction. This might be just by them being less interested in you as a person, them gossiping to others and thereby introducing a bias in people that approach you for the first time or just a general halo effect, i.e. because one attribute is prominent it overshadows all others like a halo. Given that these perceptions exist independent of whether you want them to be there, you might as well know them and make the lives of all involved a bit easier. Overall, I think asking for direct feedback is like getting a vaccination. It might hurt for a bit but the long term prevented harm definitely outweighs the short pain.

  5. Positive feedback feels good: Even though a lot of examples in this post are focused on criticism, i.e. intend to overcome negative behavior, pointing out positive things is probably at least as important. We all have experienced in some way or the other how great it feels to receive positive social feedback: A “Good Job” or “Well done” from your supervisors or people we look up to, a “Thanks for helping out” from the community you helped, an “I know you worked hard for X, I think the results reflect that” after having spent countless hours working on something with varying degrees of self-doubt, a “I think the comment you made earlier was pretty smart” or just an “I think this shirt looks pretty good on you”. This form of positive feedback can feel very rewarding and we all know it but we still give it too rarely for different reasons: a) We might think it is obvious to them that they did a good job and therefore unnecessary for us to point out, b) we might think they are just doing their job or c) we think that we are not qualified enough to give any kind of feedback and therefore just don’t say anything. I think this discrepancy has become most clear to me for chiefadjudication within debating. For every debate tournament, some people have to decide on topics (motions) in advance and thereby take on lots of responsibility for the fun and competitiveness of the tournament. It is overall a very ungrateful job. Most of the time you sacrifice countless hours of free time to iterate through many many motions - most of which actually don’t work - just to arrive at some that you think are sufficiently balanced and deep to be set on a tournament. If five of the six motions work well but one has a flaw that you have not anticipated during your preparation then the feedback for the five good rounds will be predominantly silent whereas the feedback for the bad round will be somewhere between hatred and constructive feedback. I am not only pointing fingers here but definitely part of the problem myself. I am quick to tell others that IMO their motion has some kind of flaw and give my opinion on it but rarely do I thank or praise someone for a motion that I had great fun with or found generally interesting. Therefore I think it would be good to correct this kind of imbalance between positive and negative feedback. Especially since positive feedback is often just free happiness: It costs the person giving feedback just a couple of seconds to say but the experienced reward of the receiver can be very high. It makes the countless hours of preparation feel worth to some degree. Additionally, not receiving positive feedback can be very frustrating and lead to people thinking that they are not very good. In some cases, this even leads to very qualified people stopping to pursue a certain path just because nobody told them that they were doing well. To be clear, I advocate giving positive feedback when it is deserved. If there is no underlying reason to give positive feedback, giving positive feedback and thereby lying to the person, can do more harm than good since it rewards bad behavior.

Some notes on how to implement direct communication

Knowing why it is important to communicate directly is one thing, acting on it correctly is another and it is at least as important. Therefore I want to outline some ideas on how this can be done.

  1. They are human beings: Underlying all other heuristics should be a basic understanding of human decency. They are people with desires that one should not ignore. In the vast majority of cases, they want to be liked by others, they want to be seen as positive at least in their peer-group, they do not want to be a bad person and they want to become a better person and not hurt others if there is a good pathway for that to happen - just like you and me.

  2. Consent: Fundamental for effective feedback is the consent of the person being criticized. That could either be active, i.e someone explicitly asking you for feedback or passive, i.e. you asking someone if they want feedback. However, the second case needs to be seen with caution since most people say they want feedback if explicitly asked for it. I think it should be made sure that the person receiving feedback is in a stable emotional state and a safe environment. Criticism can sometimes hit harder than expected and your goal is not to emotionally derail a person but to help them in the long run. Just make sure that the conditions are set up the right way.

  3. Constructive: Criticism in itself is often already very useful since it shows you what kind of impression you make on other people. However, it is more helpful to, in addition to criticism, also provide suggestions for the other person to improve their behavior. It is useful for the other person since they have a clear path to improvement but also for you since it forces you to reflect on what kind of behavior you would actually want to feel more comfortable. To be clear, most of the time there is no objectively “right” behavior. Communication is complicated and preferences between individuals vary highly. It is therefore especially important to express your subjective preference for or against certain behavior.

  4. Behaviour not Character: I think a major condition for the ultimate success of feedback is the way in which it is phrased. I suggest phrasing feedback always in a way that implies changeability not permanency, i.e. behavior not character traits. “I did not feel sufficiently appreciated for my contributions in the last discussions we had” is vastly different from “I think you are an unappreciative person” because one signals a simple way to change, namely, to be more appreciative in future discussions while the second signals something that is inherent to your character and therefore hard or impossible to change. These differences might not even be perceived consciously but can have a large effect on the subconsciousness of the receiver and ultimately the likelihood of their change in behavior.

  5. Criticise only things that are changeable: I think this is obvious for some traits. “I think you are too short” is just a bad criticism because the other person cannot magically grow taller. However, there are other things where the inability to change might be more hidden. Feedbacking someone that they have bad breath in the morning might not be the best idea because AFAIK there are no clear ways to change this. Feedbacking someone that they “should be more attentive during meetings” might not be the best idea if they just recently had a newborn child and therefore did not sleep the entire night. In that situation, it might be on you to adapt to their preferences and not the other way around.

  6. Check your motivations: In one of the first seasons of The Big Bang Theory there is a scene in which Howard and Penny try to implement a feedback scheme in their relationship and it goes terribly wrong. The main reason for that were dishonest intentions for implementing the scheme in the first place. One of the two, it was probably Penny, given how sexist the show is, used the feedback sessions to mostly tell Howard all the things that annoyed her at some point and just blow off some steam. These included things that are static, such as height, but were also just generally phrased in a way that was pretty nasty. I have long stopped watching the show since it entrenches bad stereotypes about gender, nerds, scientists, and rationality but I think it still serves as a good example of how not to do it.

  7. Power dynamics: Whenever you give or get feedback keep in mind the power dynamics in that particular situation. If, for example, you are the boss of a team and you want to get honest feedback it might be overwhelmingly positive because people are afraid of potential repercussions when anonymity is broken. Keep in mind that the members of the team might not be consciously aware of their motivations to the full extend. It is therefore important to stress that the feedback will not have any negative effects if anonymity is broken and to show that you are genuinely interested in feedback and it is not just another corporate responsibility coming from the executive level. Obviously, this will only mitigate the effect and not remove every bit of uncertainty that the team has.

  8. Tone and moral assumptions: Communication is not only the transmission of information through speech but to a large extend influenced by subtle cues and the way it is delivered. Therefore it is important to make the other person feel welcome and secure and show them that you genuinely care about their reception of the feedback. Most people see fairness and equality as inherent values within communication. Therefore it is reasonable to think of feedback as a reciprocal process, i.e. after giving someone feedback, you might ask for feedback from that person.

From theory to practice

Enough of the talking. For people who think this is a good idea and always wanted to tell me something but haven’t found the opportunity yet, I have set up an anonymous feedback form which is described in this post.

One last note:

If you have any feedback regarding anything (i.e. layout or opinions) please tell me in a constructive manner via your preferred means of communication.