Monday, February 01, 2016


There's an old joke about a guy who just arrived in prison.

A new inmate is standing in the yard when he hears a conversation between a group of older inmates.

"54!" one yells.

The other inmates burst into peals of laughter. The new inmate is confused.

"68!" shouts another.

More fits of laughter. A siren sounds. All the inmates shuffle out of the yard. The new inmate is bewildered.

Over time, the new inmate gets to know this group of hard timers. One day, he asks one of them, a grizzled faced older man, about this bizarre behaviour.

"Why does everyone laugh when someone calls out a number?"

The old man smiles. "Because when you've been in here as long as we have", he says, "we've heard every joke so many times that we have them memorised and numbered. So, we just say the number instead of the whole joke."

The following day, the new inmate, wiser with the inside knowledge, decides to contribute with a joke. He waits for exactly the right moment, when they're all gathered and the banter has quietened down.

"43!" the new inmate calls out with a smile.

Absolute silence reigns. Not a giggle or a grin from anyone.

He turns to the old man and says "I don't understand. What did I do wrong?"

The old man smiles knowingly at him and says "Ah, it's not the joke son, it's how you tell it."

I've had that joke in my repertoire for years. It's so old I can't even remember how I heard it. The best jokes seem timeless and always have a nugget of truth in them. A tiny fleck of wisdom.

And this joke actually came back to me recently, because of what it satirises.


The art form that is singularly the most important and most mishandled.

We've all experienced those moments in life. Personal missteps. Arguments. Disagreements. Miscommunications. Faux Pas. Etc etc etc.

And, of course, botched feedback.

Oh yes, we've all been on the giving and receiving end of that conundrum.

Sometimes it's a message that you need to hear, and it is handled with tact and diplomacy. Or, the critique is totally unwarranted but, if delivered with grace, can give you an insight you might not have expected.

And then, there's the other times. When feedback comes into your life like a flaming sledgehammer, wielded with reckless abandon by someone who should know better. All you can do is pick up the pieces afterwards.

I recently experienced both of these forms of feedback.

The first, was when I was giving feedback on a script to a colleague. I was providing a quite critical response to the screenplay, about some areas that needed drastic attention. My intentions were good, in that I was looking only to help improve the work.

How do you think it went?

If you said badly, you are WRONG.

It went so well, the person even thanked me at the end for tearing holes in the script.

Now contrast that with some feedback I received recently in a group situation.

A general message was given to the group that there was not enough progress on the work at hand. While the message was again coming from the right place, to push people to do their best work, the response was frosty at best.

Well, frosty would be an understatement. There was a mini revolt by a number of the group's participants.

What do you think was the difference between these two situations?

It was not intention. Nor was it the necessity of the message to be delivered.

It was all in the handling.

When I spoke to my colleague, I provided feedback with respect. I didn't scold. Or deride. Or condescend. I understood that this was just my opinion on their efforts, so I needed to approach a response without giving decrees.

Because, ultimately, feedback is a subjective exercise, and often our response to someone's work is affected by our taste and our bias. Only mathematicians receive absolute answers.

In short, I gave my colleague feedback with the dignity that I would want to receive, if the situation were reversed.

I wish I could say the same with the feedback to our group.

First, the message was given as a thinly veiled threat. Then, it was made personal towards a few particular participants. And finally, after creating the tense situation, the mentors then abdicated providing clear suggestions for a solution.

Total clusterf**k.

And sadly, easily avoided with some empathy and a little planning.

So remember, feedback is one of the most important parts of living in the world of grown ups.

We all need to learn. We all need to improve. We all need to test ideas and sharpen concepts to their best possible incarnation.

But if you are going to give feedback like a mature adult... have to communicate like one.

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