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What You Don’t Know About Feedback is Ruining Your Relationships

I accomplished a long-time goal last week. I gave a TEDx Talk. I had applied to eight others, before the ninth application, TEDxWilmingtonWomen, came through. So, you might think this article is about perseverance. But as I reflected not only on the experience of last week, but the road to get to there, the message I wanted to share was not about perseverance, but feedback.

We all give feedback. We give feedback in romantic relationships, in friendships, as parents and in business. And we’ve all been on the receiving end of feedback, some artfully disguised, some constructive and helpful and some – not so nice. As you read my experience, it is my greatest wish that you will reflect on your own encounters either giving or receiving feedback, so we can all improve.

Last year, I had made it to the second round of a different TEDx event, with the same idea I presented last week. In order to progress to the final round, we had to submit another video outlining our idea worth spreading. Nothing fancy – just two minutes on the phone uploaded to You Tube.

When I was not accepted for the event and the organizer offered to give feedback, I jumped at the chance. I have spoken at many events including local women’s conferences, corporate seminars and as a two time presenter at Hubspot’s INBOUND Conference which attracts an audience of 20K.

I have studied the performance of speaking and have incorporated tips from top speakers in the industry. I have been a member of the National Speakers Association for four years and am currently serving as president of the CT chapter. Of course I want feedback! I want to progress in this industry!

We arranged a phone call. After the obligatory pleasantries, she said: “The biggest feedback I could give you is that your delivery is not at the level of the other speakers and I would hire a coach.” And then there was silence. I waited for a more detailed explanation, but there was just silence. My mind was racing but the only thing that came out of my mouth was “Okay, okay.” How do I fill this silence?

I asked if she could be more specific because I really wanted to help myself. She proceeded to tell me that I didn’t come across as an expert; it seemed as if I was reciting a speech and I did not appear to have intention behind every single word. She ended by letting me know that I didn’t seem to have much color or nuance to my video and my delivery was bland. I thanked her for her candid feedback and we hung up.

I took her feedback to heart and was bothered for weeks. At first I was down on myself because I thought I was upset because she criticized me. After all, who wants to hear that what they thought they were doing well came across as subpar? Am I really that thin skinned? It took me weeks to realize, that wasn’t it at all. I wasn’t bothered by what she said. What was so bothersome to me was the way she said it.

As a cosmetic physician, I evaluate women with multiple aging concerns – a highly charged, emotional hot button. I give women suggestions on how they can improve their appearance every day. Over the years, I’ve seen thousands of faces and heard thousands of stories and I have NEVER made anyone feel bad about themselves. I have never sat across from any woman and pointed out her flaws. And I have seen plenty. Instead, I focus on why it happened, what we can change and how we can change it, if she so desires. Every woman leaves my interaction feeling hopeful.

Before I was a cosmetic physician, I was an emergency room doctor. I treated thousands of patients who wound up in my care because of repeated poor life choices. I never once made anyone feel stupid, embarrassed or regretful. I always focused on where we were now and how we could move forward.

I left her interaction feeling embarrassed, feeling like I didn’t belong in the speaking profession, feeling foolish for thinking that I could have been considered for a TEDx stage. I played her words over and over in my head for weeks on end… I didn’t have color or nuance, my words didn’t have intention, my delivery was bland.

Although I don’t agree, I hold space for the thought that she might be right. I’m not the best speaker on the planet. I have plenty of room for improvement and growth. That was her opinion of my skills and she is entitled to it. As the organizer of the event, it is her job to put together a cohesive group of speakers who would be appropriate for her audience. I clearly didn’t fit in. And that’s OK.

What wasn’t OK was her approach. She came to the conversation with a list of my speaker shortcomings but never once gave a suggestion on how to improve. She also never gave a specific example or any thought on how it could have been presented differently.

And finally, she used a lot of “you” statements… you didn’t come across like an expert, your delivery was bland, you didn’t bring color or nuance to the video. Imagine instead… As I watched your video, I didn’t even realize you were a doctor. I think you could have done or said XYZ earlier or throughout to come across more like the expert that I know you are.

So how do you give feedback? How do you speak to your children, to your spouse, to your co-workers? Do your words flatten or make room for growth? Feedback stings, no doubt – even when we ask for it. Words matter. Tone matters. Intention matters.

And just for the record… I’m a NYC girl – grew up on the streets of Queens, survived ten years of travelling the NYC subways, clawed my way out of what started out as a directionless life to being a well-respected physician and a sought after speaker. I, like many New Yorkers, live at the intersection of sarcasm and humor. It’s a coping mechanism. My delivery has never before or ever since been described as bland. Have you ever met a bland New Yorker?

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