Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

The Tact Game: Is there always a winning way to give critical feedback?

The Tact Game: Is winning friends and influencing always possible?
It's commonly held that critical feedback never has to hurt so long as you deliver it tactfully. Tact transcends all resistance. There's a nice way to say anything.

I live by that belief and promote it to my students. I tell them to assume that there's nothing they can't say to anyone as long as they just come up with the right way to say it. I encourage them to work lifelong on their rhetorical skills, to build their vocabularies, to aspire to the ability to overcome any resistance to get their messages across. Make it like a video game racing against time before the listener's ears close, and against all the objections listeners might raise. Practice speaking truth to power, but speak as an influencer and not as a martyr. Martyrs speak truth to power and pay the ultimate price. But one doesn't have to pay that price. There's always a way to influence the powerful, changing their minds or at least keeping them from killing or firing you. That's a game worth playing.

At the same time I find myself feeling annoyed when people tell me I've lost a round of that game. Here I've tried to be tactful and they tell me it wasn't good enough. They didn't like my feedback or the way I delivered it, and they assume it's the latter.

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Half the time they're right. My impulses do get the better of me, and I need to think more strategically. But half the time it feels like they're exploiting a blanket rationale for dismissing unwelcome feedback. Since they feel hurt, they automatically assume it means I failed to find a sufficiently tactful approach, and they therefore shouldn't have to consider the content of my feedback. Such a policy excuses recipients from ever having to take responsibility for their resistance to feedback. It's tact gamesmanship--a tried-and-true recipe for defense.

I appear therefore to have a double standard. Here I promote the tact game. I say the customer is always right and even if he isn't you'll do better if you assume he is. But then when a customer rejects my feedback, declaring it insufficiently tactful, I don't automatically buy that assessment. I play the game--but when told I lost a round, I doubt the referee.

Maybe it's just that, a double standard. I wouldn't put it past me to hold double standards, and being better at dishing it out than taking it in is a common one. But it's not OK. It's something to work on.

And yet it's not a double standard if one holds different standards, not for people but for roles: As feedback giver, be as ambitious as possible in your search for the tactful way to convey your message. Since you search more ambitiously if you assume there's something to find, always assume that a perfect way to say what you want to say exists. You need only look for it.

But as the receiver, make the opposite assumption. Assume that the person delivering the feedback did a reasonable job of presentation--and that if it bothers you, it may well be because the content is genuinely something to think about.

We like to pretend we're always open to useful feedback, but that openness is at best ambivalent openness. Think about it. You're cruising along on second nature, intuition, habits, and best effort. You do what you can to be nice and you do what you can to maintain the self-esteem necessary to keep from second-guessing yourself. You maintain a bubble of serenity and self-respect. And someone just comes along and pops that bubble, sticks a hand in, and rubs your nose on feedback that you're not doing as well as you think. In principle you may welcome feedback, but that doesn't mean it's fun.

With that in mind, as a recipient, take it in dutifully. Ingest it, unpalatable though it may be. Then wait a while before digesting it and deciding what's nutritious and what's waste by-product.

Next week I'll survey strategies for giving feedback effectively--speaking truth to power without getting your head cut off. These strategies all have strengths and limitations. None is a perfect surefire recipe for winning the tact game and influencing people, but they all can boost your chances when selected on the right occasion.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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