How I broke the cardinal rule for giving feedback

Earlier this year, my son, Ryan, launched his dream of having his own film production company. He’s off to a great start, winning marquee clients who rave about his work. I’m not surprised. He’s worked hard to develop his talent and has the passion to keep at it.

Recently, that passion kept him up through the night to work on redesigning the website for his business. He couldn’t wait to show me what he came up with so we arranged a time to meet at a coffee shop for the big preview.

How I broke the cardinal rule for giving feedback

“What do you think, Dad?” he asked.

“Looks nice. What’s this ‘x’ thing here and this line supposed to mean?” I responded. And I piled on a several more similar questions. It wasn’t long before his explanations turned to exasperation.

“I was looking more for praise than for suggestions,” he said, rightly agitated. The look on his face informed me that I had broken a cardinal rule: People before product.

With several pressing deadlines looming, I had been pushing hard all day. When we met, I was still in task mode, thinking he wanted my feedback about how to improve the website. It was a poor assumption.

In my haste to be helpful with suggestions, I missed an opportunity to enter into the journey with him. He parted our meeting feeling un-affirmed and pressured to defend what he had done. I left confused by what happened and disappointed that I had let him down.

Thinking about it later, I realized that I’d had the same reaction Ryan did when I’ve shown off something of my own creation to others, only to have them offer their “helpful” suggestions to make it even better. Those suggestions, while probably very good, can also create a backlash of self-doubt and discouragement. Isn’t what I’ve done enough to earn a positive response?

Putting our newly formed creation in front of another, whether it’s a website, a book chapter, drawing, or a business plan, is risky. We are never as vulnerable as when we show off our new baby.

Not wanting to be a baby killer for other’s dreams, I decided I need a way to keep my task mode behavior at bay in the future. So I drafted three questions to ask myself the next time a similar situation arises:

  1. Have I shown interest in their idea by listening first, asking questions later?
  2. Are my questions about them, their journey, and the excitement about what they’ve learned or am I only focused on what they are showing me?
  3. Have I asked them to tell me what kind of help they may want from me (if any) or am I assuming that they naturally want me to spurt out my opinions about their creation?

Had I been more intentional about applying these questions, I’m sure Ryan would not have been so discouraged by my “help.” As a guy whose job it is to give advice, it’s hard for me to slow down sometimes and relish another’s achievement. My purpose with this post is not to claim any proficiency in encouraging another. Instead, I expect to gain that proficiency from those who will keep me accountable to putting my focus on people before product.

What are some of the ways you’ve learned to put people before product?

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