Feedback – effective, but what a difficult thing to do!

On 1st May, our daughter had an horrific accident at an indoor playground that resulted in emergency surgery on her head, only just saving her life. It took us 4 weeks to confront the responsible people and I’m glad we waited that long. Our initial reaction after the accident was anger: I wanted to sue the place and get it closed down. The fury made me sick. After 4 weeks and total recovery of our daughter, the anger had abated and (mostly) left, leaving in its place an urgent wish for “closure” (as one calls it nowadays). My husband and I drove out to the nice looking play centre with that one goal: to leave it all behind us and forgive. There were 3 hurdles though, preventing us from doing that:

  1. We had put our trust in a professional institution that avoids unnecessary risk (she was at a children’s party and we weren’t there) : how could it have happened?
  2. The responsible people at the centre hadn’t called the emergency services and our daughter was operated on only just in time (after we’d heard her strange crying on the phone and demanded they do so): why didn’t they call them immediately?
  3. No one from the centre had called to ask how our daughter was doing (having watched her leave in an ambulance): don’t they care?

There was obviously only one solution: dialogue with the people responsible based on feedback and avoiding attack (which produces counter-attack and creates a situation of war). Oh yes, because I knew if it didn’t work and I felt understood and acknowledged with each of my 3 hurdles, I would go to war. And I wanted to avoid that if at all possible (knowing how impossible it is to really win).

We arrived and had a look round – an intimate, clean and friendly place. And then I calmly asked the lady who was older than 25 if she were the manager and introduced us as the parents of the little girl who’d had the accident, asking if we could have a talk. She was alert and gracious and immediately invited us to a quiet table, somehow signalling to one of her colleagues to bring us a coffee. I asked her if we could give her feedback on what happened, because it was stopping us from getting over the situation. She agreed, was very focussed and listened. That was already 80 % goal reached, I think. I’m not sure how we managed to stick to the feedback rules of speaking from one’s own perspective, mixing positive and negative perceptions and voicing one’s wishes for how we would have liked it. I’m not sure how we managed to completely avoid judging her. I suppose it’s because we knew we wanted to shake hands at the end of the discussion, rather than “We’ll see you in court” or something equally melodramatic (my husband’s a lawyer).

After about 45 minutes we thanked her quietly and shook hands. She was truly sorry and shocked by what had happened and thanked us for opening her eyes. She invited our daughter to come and have a free play, which we’ll do one day.

It was over and we could get on with our lives in forgiveness.

I was so grateful to her for her ability to take on our feedback and even formulate clear learnings for the future, and I was grateful and proud of our ability to give feedback – rational, emotional and fair. I have practised giving and receiving feedback for 22 years – it’s part of my job. It’s not easy and I’m often hopeless at it in a private context, but this encounter proved to me above all others how effective and wonderful it is.

A few of my clients are currently working on improving feedback in their teams and everyday working situation. Why? Because it’s a safe way of moving onwards, learning, improving, dealing with mistakes and staying happy and sane! Confrontation, attack and judgement destroys people – whether in their private lives or at work. If we’re obsessed about being right, we may “win” our point, but still lose, because trust is destroyed along with the opponent’s lost face. Feedback can make everyone a winner – it allows us to see the world through a different perspective and decide for ourselves if we want to change our viewpoint.

We don’t know for sure whether the play centre has changed any of their practices to reduce the risk of other children hurting themselves, but I believe they have.  Because the feedback session with the owner enabled her to see ways of doing so that allowed her keep face and be in charge.

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