Saying sorry (cont.)

It’s very hard, maybe impossible, to say sorry and mean it from the place of pride/shame, because to say sorry requires us to be humble and vulnerable. We have to admit that we did something wrong and stand there naked while the person we’ve wronged receives our apology. We have to risk them rejecting our apology, maybe even rejecting us. It’s a big act of courage to say sorry and mean it. It’s scary and it requires enough shame-resilience to know that we’re OK, that we’re bigger than the bad thing we did.

If secretly, under all the layers, we feel that we are not OK, then most likely our pride will kick in and we won’t be able to say sorry. We’ll turn it around, refusing to accept full responsibility for what we’ve done. We might say:

  • What I did is not as bad as you think it is
  • I acted that way because you provoked me
  • I did my best
  • I didn’t mean to hurt you
  • You started it

or any number of other things that suggest that we’re not fully behind our apology. This is pride operating – and beneath it lurks shame. If we were to admit our fault it would lead us down a shame spiral to “I’m not good enough” – so our pride kicks in to save us from the humiliation of this and we lash out to protect ourselves.

Now I’m not saying that every situation is simple and there’s always a clear right and wrong. In fact, in most situations involving two people or more, there are wrongs and hurts on both sides. But have you ever seen a successful resolution that doesn’t start with at least one side taking full responsibility for their part of the problem? An unmitigated apology creates space for real, vulnerable, open-hearted dialogue. It’s the first step on the road to communication and understanding, especially in a conflict or argument. And that’s precisely what makes this all so bloody difficult!

When I saw those Japanese suits on their knees on national TV, I understood what a sacrifice it is to say sorry and mean it. That was an extreme example, for sure, and it’s stuck in my head for over twenty years because it was so strong. It had to be extreme because of the shame/pride that caused them to lie to themselves (and the whole country) in the first place. It was an massive apology for an epic fuck-up.

Interestingly, when I shared this article with my lover (to check she was comfortable with me writing about what had passed between us) she added these enriching and valuable thoughts to the discussion:

For me, sorry is something I have to feel fully in order to say, and if I’m feeling humiliated at the prospect of apologising, then I find I can’t also feel the apology fully. At the moment, I’m noticing that wherever fear of humiliation comes up, it’s showing me where I have more processing to do around self-worth: similarly, once that fear has been resolved, then I know I’m ready to apologise if that’s what the situation calls for. However, once I do reach that point, it just feels natural to say, and I don’t feel worried about rejection, because I know that if I come to it with a full heart then I will have done the right thing on my part. So I agree with your perspective on the links between apologising, shame and self-worth, but perhaps have a different take on things when it comes to the aspect of sacrifice or it being difficult.

This in a way takes my argument to its logical conclusion: to apologise deeply you must have a lot of shame-resilience. In her case, she needs to be fully ready to give an apology without fear before doing it. I know that for me, sometimes there is still a trace of fear of humiliation hanging around — but nonetheless, I have overcome my pride/shame enough to be ready to say sorry.

For most of us, most of the time, we don’t have to let things go as far as the Japanese suits did. By developing shame-resilience, which means looking honestly at what we’ve done without thinking we’re wrong at our very core, we can recognise where we might have hurt someone else and apologise for it. And when we do, the situation changes significantly. It may not fix things immediately, but it has a huge positive impact on the situation. It’s a really important thing to do and I salute you for your courage if and when you do it.


 

The trouble with a lot of spiritual work is that it doesn’t measurably help people become better versions of themselves. For me, what really matters about The Work is that it fosters kindness, humility, authenticity, graciousness and awareness. The rest means precious little to me. I don’t really care how great your visions are, how much you can connect with the universal spirit of Love and how much beauty you feel in your heart. If you still behave in egoic ways and you can’t see it; if you still hurt others through lack of awareness; and above all, if you still don’t have the humility to know when you’ve done something wrong and apologise for it, then what’s the point of all the work you’ve been doing?

Sorry is a tiny word with a huge impact. To say it and mean it, we have to recognise both what we did wrong and that we are not fundamentally wrong. We have to believe that we’re a decent person who fucked up, rather than believing that we are a fucked-up person pretending to be decent. It’s risky, vulnerable, raw and real. And vitally important for healthy relationships.

Because sorry really matters.

Giving & receiving feedback (pt 2)

On giving feedback
I’ve learnt a lot about giving feedback over the last few years. I’ve learnt it the hard way: through being a clumsy arse and giving it badly, through hurting people’s feelings many times. I’ve been told over and over again that my feedback didn’t land because I didn’t give it right. And I’ve also been told when it did, when I found the ‘just so’ point and gave it in a way that could be received and taken on board.

My clients have taught me a lot about giving feedback. By definition most of them come to me because they want my support and input. They appreciate the feedback, it’s part of what they pay me for. At the same time, it’s important that I deliver it skilfully and with love. I’ve learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t from my precious clients – from cleaning up messy situations as well as the times that they’ve had breakthroughs because I ‘hit the spot’.

So here’s some of the stuff I’ve learnt that I hope will be useful to you too.


 

Timing
Timing is very important when giving feedback, especially when it’s something the person might find difficult to hear. In fact there’s a close correlation between how difficult the feedback might be to hear and how carefully you should consider the timing.

So if, for example, I want to give someone a compliment and I know they find receiving compliments easy, I won’t think too hard about the timing. I do of course still want us to both be present for the conversation, as giving praise is important and I want it to land just as much as more challenging feedback. I’ll still ask if it’s OK to give – more on that in a moment – and I’ll still pick my moment. But I won’t worry too much because I know that they’re going to receive the feedback easily and it’s going to land without too much discomfort.

By contrast, if I want to tell someone that something they’ve been doing is crossing one of my boundaries, or that people are speaking badly about them, I’m going to pick my moment carefully. I want to know that they’re in a calm, receptive state of mind and that they don’t have too much else on their plate. (This is ideal though not always possible.) So I’ll look for the right moment, or create that moment between us, to enable me to offer the feedback.

I sometimes lay the ground by telling them in advance that I have some potentially-challenging feedback and that I’d like us to make space for it. This is a bit of a mixed strategy, though, as it can cause the person to get themselves worked up and panicky about the feedback and be less receptive and open when the moment actually comes. However, from personal experience I find it better to be forewarned that ‘we’re going to have a potentially difficult conversation’ than simply have it dropped on me.

(And believe me, as the giver of feedback I’ve messed this one up plenty of times!)

Exactly how you handle the timing and how much you ‘prepare’ the person for feedback depends on your relationship and what you think works best for the other person. Each relationship is different and there are no clear rules about the best approach – but in my opinion care and thought needs to be given to this.


 

Asking permission
Another key element to giving feedback successfully is to ask before launching in. The question is so simple and so potent: May I offer you some feedback? This immediately shines a light of respect and consent on the conversation you’re about to have. It says “I care about you” before you’ve even started. What a great way to start – especially if the feedback you’re about to give is challenging!

It also allows the person to say no to receiving your feedback, which is their right. There are many different reasons why someone might not want feedback (either right now or at all): because now is not the right moment; because they don’t have the resources to take it on board; because they aren’t open to your feedback; because they find feedback really challenging and need to prepare themselves; and so on. Whatever the reason (and they don’t have to share it), it’s important to respect someone’s no if they don’t wish to receive your feedback, however difficult that might be for you as the one wishing to give it. It’s like any activity where you enter someone else’s psychic, emotional or physical space: no means no.

In practice I’ve found it to be rare for people to say no when asked respectfully if they want feedback. Why? Because honestly, most folks really want to hear feedback from someone who cares about them, even if it’s difficult. Especially if it’s difficult, actually: because isn’t it better to hear that from someone who cares about you than someone who doesn’t (or worse – not at all)?

In asking this question I sometimes qualify it a bit. For example:

“I’d like to give you some positive feedback – are you open to that?”
“I have some slightly difficult feedback to share with you – is this a good time for it?”
“I’ve been hearing things about you and I want to give you some feedback on it – how do you feel about me doing that?”

Like the timing, the exact words you choose depend on the relationship you have, what you know about the person and so on. For example, I immediately get nervous if people say things like “can I give you some feedback?” – or worse, “can I have a word with you?” I always assume that I’ve done something wrong and I’m about to get berated for it. So adding something that gives me a little sense of the nature of the feedback (positive, negative, challenging etc) is always welcomed.

If the feedback is difficult, there’s no real way round the fact that the conversation will be vulnerable. The thing to remember is, it’ll be vulnerable for both of you. As the giver of difficult feedback, in a culture where we are taught that this is rude, you’ll undoubtedly be nervous and uncomfortable beforehand. This can often lead to you being jerky, blunt, harsh, mumbly or clumsy in your delivery. Remember to be very kind to yourself and know that you’re doing something both brave and difficult. And ultimately, you’re giving the other person a gift: the gift of your feedback.

Because it’s true that we often feel funny, especially right before we start, I recommend practicing the question you’re going to ask and honing the exact words you’re going to use beforehand. This sounds super naff, I know, but I think it makes a massive difference. As a former theatre director I know that great delivery starts once the lines are learnt by heart. If you have said the line enough times that the words themselves don’t trip you up, you can really focus on keeping your heart open and saying them with as much love and compassion as possible when the moment comes. Won’t this be the kindest way to deliver something difficult to someone you care about?

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Giving & receiving feedback (pt 3)

Gauging the response
As you give feedback, take time to see how it’s landing. Notice the person’s body language and how much they are engaged with you and what you’re saying. Often people shut down when they’re overwhelmed. In physical terms this looks like closing up, shrinking, getting more contained. (Think of a turtle going into its shell and you have a good sense of it.) When a person starts to shut down it’s often hard for them to take any more on board.

I’ve noticed that often at that point I get stronger in my feedback, because I feel I’m not being heard. This, clearly, is not a helpful approach. Better at this point to check in and see how the other person’s doing and what they need in order to continue with the conversation. They might need a break to take on board what you’ve already said, they might need to express some things back to you or something else to allow them to be fully present. Whatever it is, it’s helpful for both of you if you can give that to them before proceeding.

Sometimes it helps to ask the person how the feedback is landing and what they’ve heard so far. If you do this, it’s important to stress that you’re not testing them, but rather that you are checking in to see if your communication is clear enough and giving them space to process it. It’s also a chance to shift the focus from you talking to them talking, which in itself makes a significant change in the power dynamic between you.


 

Allowing space for discussion
Whatever happens, at some point you’ll have said everything you want to say. Now comes a tricky part! Take a deep breath and ask the person how they’re feeling now and how your feedback feels to them. This is one of the most important things you can do at this moment, because it reminds them that you’re two human beings having a conversation and that you care about their wellbeing. It also tells them that you are not just a ‘strict teacher’ telling a ‘dumb student’ how it is – but a person offering feedback to another person. It gives them permission to feel however they feel about what you’ve said.

So these are some ways in which you can give feedback in a way that’s nourishing and caring, even when it’s difficult. In the next section I’ll talk about how to receive feedback in a way that supports both you and the other person to stay open.


 

On receiving feedback
As well as learning a lot about giving feedback, I’ve had the mixed blessing of deep learnings around receiving feedback in the past few years. I am, in the words of a good friend, “a flawed character who’s continuously self-improving”. I’m someone who cares deeply about doing things better and receiving feedback is extremely important to me. At the same time I find it hard to receive criticism from others and this makes me defensive when it comes at me.

What I’ve learnt about this, again the hard way, is that being defensive when people give me feedback causes them to stop trying to do so. It unconsciously sends out a message that I am not available to receive that feedback, especially when I argue with someone and try to prove them wrong rather than hearing what they’re trying to tell me.

So this is the first, and most important, thing about receiving feedback: however uncomfortable and difficult it is, try to receive it with openness and gratitude. Breathe deeply, keep your feet on the ground and try not to react! It’s difficult, I know (believe me, I know!) – but this is the best way to allow the feedback to land and to let the other person know that it was worth taking the risk in sharing their feedback with you.

It is, of course, perfectly valid to slow things down and to acknowledge your own feelings of discomfort as the feedback comes in. If you start to feel overwhelmed, it’s really fine to say, for example, “I’m finding it really hard to hear this, can we pause for a moment while I process what you’ve said so far?” This tells the other person that you’re really with them and that you’re trying to stay present but that it hurts. It’s very human and deeply vulnerable.

What works less well is if you start to defend yourself and argue back. Saying something like “I didn’t mean it like that” or “You misunderstood my actions there” tells the other person that you’re more interested in maintaining your position than acknowledging theirs. It says that you are closed to feedback and that you won’t take what they’re saying on board. This is a good way to make yourself unavailable for further feedback from this person.

In practice, this is tough stuff and both of you should be as kind and compassionate as possible as the conversation unfolds. If, for example, as the person receiving feedback I start crying, I may need the other person to stop for a moment and let me feel my feelings more deeply before continuing. Asking for this is a way of honouring the conversation and also taking care of myself.

It’s worth remembering that, however much we wish for the other person to give feedback in a skilful way (following, for example, some of the suggestions above), this may not happen. They may have stored up their feedback for months and be furious by the time they share it. Giving feedback may be really tough for them and that may make them clumsy and aggressive in how they deliver it. As the receiver of feedback, you can only control your reactions. Doing your best to receive the feedback with an open heart and not become defensive is a great way to tell the other person that you really want their feedback.

Of course there may be times when you need to stop things because it’s too much for you, ask them to continue later or even ask them to adjust their tone in order to make it easier for you to receive the feedback. There’s a thin line here between making things palatable and becoming defensive, and how you handle it depends on the relationship you have. If you shift the focus of the conversation onto *how* they’re giving feedback, you are in fact being defensive. If however you say that a slightly gentler approach will help you to receive what they’re saying better, it might make all the difference.

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Giving & receiving feedback (pt 4)

That special feeling
With both giving and receiving feedback there are no hard and fast rules for doing it right. Instead, I encourage you to recognise that ‘special feeling’ that arises when the space really opens up between you. We can feel and experience this in different ways, including:

  • a feeling of spaciousness
  • being more relaxed and open in the body
  • a softness or tenderness between you
  • an open feeling (sometimes almost painful) in your chest and/or belly
  • more pauses between speaking and a lack of interruptions
  • a sense of ease in the conversation
  • a feeling of loving and being loved

There are, of course, many other indicators of that special feeling, which is a precious type of intimacy that arises when we share vulnerability together. (For more on this theme, read M Scott Peck’s pioneering book The Different Drum.) Whatever it is that helps you recognise the presence of that kind of openness, that ‘special feeling’, give it space. It’ll really help you when having those difficult conversations, as you’ll know when things are moving in a good direction.

Equally, you can notice the opposites as indicators that things aren’t going so well: each of you rushing to speak, interrupting each other, feeling closed down, the body becoming tighter and so on. If you recognise that there’s a spectrum of feeling, from wide open to totally closed, and see where you are on it at any moment in the conversation, it’ll help a lot with those small adjustments that allow the dialogue to flow and the feedback to land.


 

Withholding feedback
With all this in mind, you may be asking yourself “why would I go through the difficult and painful process of giving feedback when it’s so hard to do?” It is of course a valid question, though I hope that some of the stuff I’ve already mentioned about intimacy-through-vulnerability and deepening trust should convince you.

If the feedback is positive, it is a huge boost to a relationship to share it. It’s not too difficult (though as I said earlier, giving and receiving positive feedback has its own challenges) and it does a lot of good for friendships, relationships between lovers and partners and within families. And positive feedback breeds more positive feedback – once people see that it’s ok to give compliments and how good it feels (once the initial awkwardness is overcome), it starts to become a flowing fountain of praise. I literally can’t think of a reason why that isn’t a good thing.

Although there are many good reasons to share positive feedback, withholding it isn’t a problem as such. With negative feedback, however, it is amazing how much damage it can do when you withhold it. Negative feedback can often be felt on a subtle level, in the slight tension that arises between people, the way you roll your eyes (even silently or internally) when the person does *that annoying thing you hate* for the 20th time. It creates a tension that’s subtle but ever-present, closing down the space between you and decreasing the amount of openness and intimacy that’s possible.

As this can all be felt, albeit at a subtle level, this gradually decreases the amount of trust between you too. A lot of these dynamics are unsaid but deeply felt. It may be that you simply choose to spend less time with that person, because suddenly (and for no apparent reason) it doesn’t feel as comfortable to be together. Often with sexual partners it shows up as a decrease in sexual attraction and desire – keep doing it and eventually the sex goes away altogether. (From my working with people in this area, withholding seems to be the number one reason that relationships go from passionate to sexless.)

Withholding what you need to say to someone is one of the main reasons that relationships lessen in trust, intimacy and closeness. The way I visualise it, it’s like the negative stuff that you’re holding onto sits between you and pushes you apart. The longer you leave it, the worse it gets – though it’s still better late than never.

Above all, don’t be under the illusion that withholding feedback spares anyone’s feelings. If you care about the person you are not helping them or supporting your friendship by withholding what you feel from them. You are effectively deceiving them, because they think everything’s fine and you are holding negative feelings they’re not aware of. The kindness, most compassionate and most loving thing you can do is to find the courage and share what’s bothering you. It’ll be uncomfortable for a little while but it’ll bring you closer in the end. And the alternative is invariably to grow further apart.


In this article I’ve argued that giving and receiving feedback is one of the most important things you can do in your relationships. I’ve spoken about why it’s important to do it, the benefits of doing it and how to do it. I hope that in sharing my experience with this topic I’ve given you some useful ideas and tools for giving and receiving feedback. I also very much welcome your input and to hear more about your experiences with doing this. If you feel like it, please email me (contact [at] londonfaerie [dot] co [dot] uk) or leave a comment below. All feedback, positive and negative, is most welcomed.

Thank you for reading this article.

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