Strategy, not self-expression: Why giving feedback is a sales conversation
Conversations are a mechanism for behavior change. Before you speak, ask yourself, “Is this strategy or self-expression?”
When someone says they are open to feedback, it does not mean you should share all of your frustrations.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not your chance to express how you feel.
A feedback conversation is actually a sales conversation. To empathize with what matters to them. Then craft your message around that.
It’s a chance to understand what is most likely to motivate the specific person you’re speaking with.
In other words, it’s an opportunity for behavior change.
If you’ve ever wondered, “Should I say this? Will it hurt or help?”, the below framework will help you answer that question.
“Is this strategy or self expression?”
This is one of my favorite and most often used frameworks. I use it for casual feedback conversations, formal feedback conversations, and beyond that, any time I want to encourage positive behavior.
Before you speak, ask yourself, “Is this strategy or self-expression?”
Strategy means only saying things that get you closer to changing the person’s behavior. You should only say things that you strongly believe will incentivize the other person to change in the right direction. Strategy is probably 10% of what you initially want to say.
Self-expression is venting, having the last word, or trying to teach someone a lesson. It includes trying to prove you’re right and wanting the person to feel remorse. Anything that isn’t 100% going to encourage the person to improve goes in the self-expression bucket.
Whenever I deviate from strategy-and let myself veer into self-expression territory—I instantly regret it.
How to focus on strategy, not self-expression
First, mentally forgive the person. Do what it takes so when you’re in the actual conversation, you bring a positive (or at least neutral) energy.
Get any pent up emotions out of your system by talking to your spouse, friend, or therapist.
Ultimately, the energy you bring will set the tone for the conversation. Your recipient will be much more likely to hear you when they feel you have good intent. So bathe in your good intent, so it comes through in your body language, facial expressions, content, and tone of voice.
Second, identify what is most likely to motivate an individual to change in the way you want them to change. Think about what you were about to say. Then trim 90% of that because it’s probably self-expression, not strategy.
Third, say only the 10% that will actually change behavior. When you’re in the actual conversation, anytime you’re about to say something, use the litmus test: “Is what I’m about to say strategy or self-expression?”
Self-expression is why most feedback conversations fail
The reason many feedback conversations go awry is because you think this is a chance to express yourself.
After all, you’ve probably been annoyed with this person’s behavior for a while. You secretly want them to know how they’ve made your life harder. And you feel justified in speaking up. You feel like you have a moral high ground.
When you sit across from the person, you unload all your frustration onto them.
The recipient feels hurt, angry, defensive, and resentful.
But they have no idea what to do differently in the future. More importantly, they don’t feel motivated to change.
So the whole conversation—and all the emotional anxiety on both sides—was wasted.
Keep your eyes on the prize
What is the prize? The prize is behavior change. Sweet, sweet behavior change.
Conversations are a mechanism for behavior change.
When you view conversation as a mechanism for behavior chance, you can now be much more strategic about what to say. The “strategy or self-expression” framework helps you stay focused on aiming for behavior change.
As a feedback giver, we sometimes forget to align what we say with our overall goal of changing behavior.
When giving hard feedback, most of us focus on our own feelings. We don’t think about how the other person might receive the news.
The minute your recipient gets defensive, it becomes a lot harder to undo the defensiveness and get them to accept what you’re saying. So the trick is: don’t trigger the defensiveness in the first place.
Focus solely on getting closer to the behavior you want to see
Even when you are someone’s boss, you have to sell them on your idea. Even to your spouse, your family, your friends.
“Selling” someone on an idea is the most generous thing you can do.
“But Wes,” you say, “They are close friends and family. Why do I have to empathize and think about it from their perspective and do all that extra work? Why can’t I just be myself?”
Because we are all a little petty and sensitive deep down inside. You and me included. It’s worth it to empathize with our friends and family. They deserve your best behavior too. And ultimately, helping the people closest to you feel seen and heard will improve almost everything you do.