Giving Feedback Using Non-Violent Communication


Taras Voitovych

Front-End Engineer
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Hi. I’m Taras. I’m no coach, psychotherapist, or, for God’s sake, trainer. I do software engineering.

Earlier in my career I got really bad feedback.

“You’re working bad. If that continues, be sure, you’ll get fired”.

Pretty harsh, right? I asked — what that means.

“If you don’t get what it means, then we’re obviously done”.

long story short

I bet it's not the kind of feedback one would like to get. Out of the blue sky, after dozens of 1-2-1s confirming I was doing just fine, I got exactly this.

The hardest thing is that this talk meant to put things to an end. Whatever relations we had, my manager was very determined that I was bad at it and that they should come to an end. Leaving me with no clue on how to fix all this.

It took me days to process it and start reacting. I approached my manager again and literally drew bits of explanations out of him. We argued a lot.

After some time, we fixed the issue and things got back to normal.

Then I failed again. It happens. And you know what - I got great feedback. It started with facts, emotions, outcomes, needs, and a request on what to improve. Was I shocked? Hell, yes. I mean, wow.

This personal transformation - it inspired me deeply. I needed to do smth about giving feedback from then on.

Instinctively, I started doing my research. Talking with my friend, who also happened to be a psychotherapist, I found out about one and only non-violent communication. After that, I ran a presentation at my company to raise awareness of it and to encourage people to use it.

In short, it looks like this: you reveal the whole story in this order:

You may find many similar images explaining this model in detail. Why would you care to read this piece? I’d share my real-time experience from applying, plus suggest a few observations.

unlocking intentions through non-violent feedback

Here we go.

1. I believe the most important thing about feedback is what you are having on your mind. If you aim to belittle the person then whatever technique you’d use, the meta-message would still be offensive. People intuitively pick up on this negativity. Alternatively, your intention might be to fix things, to see the obstacles in one’s growth journey, and to help knock them off.

What I like about non-violent communication is that it aims to keep relations growing. Think of that. Growing. In building any relationship, we stumble upon some roadblocks tempting us to give up. Here is exactly where we need to put some extra effort and remove this roadblock. You can negotiate and do that together with your manager/peer/partner. Sometimes you’ve got to do it on your own. But the key here is your intention to go on.  

2. Yet, before starting to fix relations and let them grow, it’s good to find out what is spoiling them. It requires digging deeper. If you’re a manager - get to know why the person is working bad before throwing emotional feedback like the one I got. Digging deep works for the other side, too. Whatever feedback you get as a subordinate, get the most out of the details, and don’t be shy to ask questions, again and again. Mutual understanding is hard to achieve and it is sometimes our job as listeners to get all the details of the feedback.

3. In some cases, granular feedback, specific and precise, may be more effective. Alternatively, direct feedback can work, too, but mostly with people who have a long history of working together and share a high level of understanding. At Rebbix, I believe, we do have one as many people have been working here for over 5 years.

4. Yet, that high level of understanding is smth rare. In any relationship, we often have some not-so well communicated expectations. In my case, my manager thought that I should do my job well according to his standards. No matter what. And me not working well drove him crazy. And, in his point of view,  the fact that I did not work up to his standards meant that I worked badly. Outcome? Harsh feedback and the desire to fire me. So, if you get this kind of reaction, better get to know the standards, to the least.

5. And if you feel that feedback is inadequate, you’ve got to do the job for your feedback-giver. Think of the context and understand how emotional it is, what are the facts, outcomes etc. If emotions’ radar is exceeding its limits, then probably it is better to temper the facts. Of course, the easiest way to react to emotional feedback is with emotions. But better not.

6. The better option is to retreat to a nonviolent communication frame as it works long-term. Yes, it requires some prep work. You have to sit and differentiate your emotions, facts, needs, and requests. But the result - it pays off. In classic feedback, we usually just express ourselves, it helps to calm down, in a moment, but then you get back to where you started. But things get back on track quite fast and you’ll soon find yourself in a very similar situation. It’s quite frustrating. So I would definitely prefer using nonviolent communication, for long-term results and for prevention of issues that freak you out. Plus, when I give this kind of feedback, this frame also helps me a lot. It structures what I feel, think, etc.

7. What’s great about non-violent communication is that it leaves no room for personal offenses. What I mean is that it objectifies what has been done and its outcomes. Like: there was certain misbehavior (bug being created), outcomes (system was down), emotions, etc. But it is the bug that freaked one out, not a person. All the team had to work overtime due to the bug, not me. Not because I am stupid or miserable.

So, the bottom line about the feedback is to ask yourself - what is your main goal? If it is about improving the way we work, then your communication will take one road - to get to know what’s happening and fix it. And if the goal is to prove that the person works badly then no technique or approach would be helpful in fixing things.

Bonus tip: recognition box. One of our delivery managers at Rebbix suggested we write some recognition notes in a box to highlight what extra has been done. At first, he was the one to fill it and his notes included some ordinary staff. But over time we started to kick in and by the end of the week, we usually got some things to celebrate. And what I understood: it is great to get positive feedback even when you just do your job well.  You get feedback from the outside that you are on track, that everything is fine and you are doing great. It adds up to your confidence levels and supports your mental health. Just like a compass, it reassures you that the vector you’ve chosen is right.

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