Correcting Cautiously

 


T E N

Correcting Cautiously


Corrective feedback can make or break our relationships.

‘It is strange that sword and words have the same letters. Even more strange is that they have the same effect if not handled properly.’

—Anonymous


‘Most of the time our frustration comes from improper dealings in our relationships,’ I said, trying to console Harry. ‘And this stems from our poor communication, whether it’s our body language, actions or words. We must take full responsibility for our relationships,’ I continued.

  ‘But if I’m always thinking about what to say to not upset my wife, that would make life miserable and so calculated,’ Harry retorted.

  I sighed. ‘Harry, yes, we must choose our words carefully when we are correcting others, but before that we must learn to invest appreciation in them.’

  I settled down to explain in detail.

Investment before Withdrawal

‘In 2017, at the end of September, I was invited to speak at the Bombay Stock Exchange on the topic of “Indian Culture Empowering Work–Life Balance”. The venue was what you would expect it to be. A large, round auditorium, a grand stage lined with a velvet red carpet and 150 executives from stock exchanges around the world. It was a prestigious event, and I felt honoured to be invited to speak there. A point that I made there seemed to resonate with the high-flying audience. I said, “Our mutual funds and our relationships have one thing in common: we must invest in both before we can withdraw.” And this is how it is —many times we forget to invest appreciation and love into a person before we correct them. This can leave them feeling demotivated and not cherished. Learning the art of appreciation is vital for building healthy relationships. I realized this when I was travelling in Nepal.

  ‘I remember how, even as my teeth chattered and my body shivered, my eyes gazed at the beauty that surrounded me. It was bitterly cold in Muktinath, at the foot of the Thorong La mountain pass in the Himalayas. Muktinath is a sacred place for Hindus and Buddhists alike. For the Hindus, it the place where the natural form of Lord Vishnu is found downstream at Kali Gandaki. And for the Buddhists it is a place where important gods and goddesses have resided.

  ‘A few monks, including myself, had taken a group of families to this beautiful part of the world for a spiritual retreat. After spending some time discussing the significance of the place we were at, we returned to our accommodation. The purpose of this trip was not only to visit all the places of spiritual virtue but, more importantly, to spend time with these families. There is no substitute to spending quality time with each other, and I have found that open communication with people in the midst of nature can do wonders to strengthen bonds. There could have been no better backdrop for this than the Himalayas!

  ‘As I returned to the townhouse that we had rented, I flicked open my laptop to check my email. Although time had stopped for me whilst I was away on this spiritual retreat, it had not for people in Mumbai who had pressing issues to discuss with me. As I scrolled through my inbox, scanning for anything imperative, a flagged email caught my eye. “Your visa to Ukraine has been approved. Your passport is ready to be collected from Delhi, or will take five working days to reach your chosen address.”

  ‘ Five working days? I panicked. Another monk and I were meant to fly to Ukraine in three days’ time, as soon as we landed in Mumbai. There was no way I could miss my flight to Ukraine; my spiritual teacher Radhanath Swami had personally asked me to visit.

  ‘I immediately got up. I started planning in my head. I ran into the communal area of the house. Everyone was laughing and warming up over some herbal tea, their woollen hats and gloves drying on the radiators. Thinking it was appropriate, I asked one of the senior monks, out of courtesy, if I could fly to Delhi slightly earlier to pick up my passport from the Ukrainian consulate. The bus and train journey to Delhi from Kathmandu was a gruelling thirty-four hours. A flight was only a couple of hours, saving me valuable time in my race to get to Eastern Europe.

  ‘“How are you planning to go?” he asked me whilst sipping on hot ginger tea.

  ‘“Flight, it’s only a few hours,” I said confidently.

  ‘“And who’s going to pay for that flight?”

  ‘I sensed that this was not going to go my way. “Well . . .” not wanting to say the temple, which was already low on funds, “I have to go because my passport is in Delhi. We won’t reach Ukraine in time if I do not get my passport by tomorrow morning,” I pleaded.

  ‘The noise of people talking quietened as they homed in on our conversation. The senior monk put his tea down.

  ‘“I do not think it’s a good idea. You can travel with us by train to Delhi and then proceed to Ukraine a few days later,” he said authoritatively.

  ‘Our tickets were already booked. However, I left it at that and went to my room to let things settle down. In the evening, the senior monk gave a small lecture to the group, narrating stories about the sites we had seen. As we approached dinner time, I brought up the topic with him again. It was vital that I get to Ukraine.

  ‘He got up and started to raise his voice in front of everybody. “I already told you that this is not possible. Why are you bringing it up again? Don’t you have any manners?” He went on ridiculing me for what seemed like five long minutes. It was humiliating. All these families knew me personally; their kids looked up to me as a role model, and here I was being slandered publicly.

  ‘I walked away to my room. I paced up and down our 3-metre-long room with bunk beds on either side, panting shallowly. My eyes teared up. Thoughts rushed through my head, How could somebody speak to me like that? I thought we were friends! He doesn’t understand how important my flight to Ukraine is! In anger, it is so easy to lash out. When our ego is crushed, our emotions run wild. I controlled myself, took a deep breath in and said a prayer, silently—I decided to press pause.

  ‘He had a point. The temple was tight on finances, it was inappropriate to ask the families travelling with us for funding, and I could not just abandon them on this trip. These were the practical reasons I listed to help me calm down. It helped, but only slightly. I closed my eyes, and like a flashback, I remembered all my years in the ashram that the senior monk had nurtured me and was a friend to me when times were tough. He was the one who made me feel like the ashram was my home. He had not treated me this way before during all this time that I had known him. He had always been investing love, kindness and trust in me. It was not like him to lash out like this. Was there something on his mind?

  ‘I washed my face and returned to where everybody had congregated. It smelled like tomato soup and freshly baked bread, but as I walked into the room, the tension was palpable. I went in as if nothing had happened and behaved like I always did. He glanced at me and our eyes met—our subtle method of apologizing and forgiving. You could see people sighing with relief. I had forgiven him; we did not bring up the issue again.

  ‘The Kathmandu bus station was bustling in the morning: people selling tea from metal containers, porters running with people’s bags on their carts, and tourists in shorts and huge cameras being harassed by kids who wanted a few rupees. It was a scene similar to most South Asian transport terminals. We travelled by bus for ten hours to Gorakhpur, where our journey would continue by train.

  ‘It was a quick transition between bus and train. We had tickets for a sleeper-class cabin, where seats could turn into three-tiered bunk beds. I was excited to see the blue berths as my neck was slightly sore from sitting in the bus for half a day. I settled down next to the window and watched as the train picked up speed and weaved through the divine countryside.

  ‘Thirty minutes into the journey, the senior monk came and solemnly sat down next to me. He held my hand, and with tears flowing down his face, apologized for how he had treated me. I couldn’t help but cry with him—I had never seen him so emotional. When we see people we love feeling upset, we naturally feel upset, too. I also apologized to him, saying that I should not have pushed him and that his concerns were valid. He did not accept my apology and insisted that it was all his fault. Indeed, true forgiveness contributes to forming the strongest bonds between friends.

  ‘A few weeks later, when we got together with all the families for an event, we asked them what the highlights of their trip to Nepal had been. We were expecting them to say that they loved the mystic temples, the scenery of Kathmandu or even our lectures—none of them said that. They all unanimously agreed that the highlight had been seeing the friendship between me and the senior monk. From an unpleasant exchange to deep forgiveness, they were astonished at the depth of our bond. To this day, he remains one of my closest friends.

  ‘Only when we invest in people can we correct them. Sometimes this is done strongly, but we are all human. Mistakes happen and tempers are lost. But if our investments in others are strong, if we give them the care, love and appreciation they deserve, these little withdrawals come across as sprinkles of rain and not as torrential monsoons. This does not mean that we never give corrective feedback, but we need to learn the art of doing it correctly. Let me explain: 

Corrective Feedback: An Art

‘Beyond any other need, the greatest longing of every individual is to give love and to be loved. It is our relationships that allow this mantra to come to fruition. However, it is surprising that the relationships we cherish and keep so close to our heart can easily be neglected and abused. For the most parts, this is not done on purpose, but out of ignorance and an inability to understand how one should behave. We may have the right intentions but giving advice inappropriately may do more harm than good. That is why we must learn to do it properly, and it takes practice and introspection to develop this ability. Any time you feel the need to give corrective feedback to someone, think of these four questions: 

Am I the right person to give corrective feedback?

‘Is it appropriate for you to correct that person? There is a joke that every woman thinks that the best child in the world is her child, and every man thinks that the best wife in the world is the neighbour’s wife. We would all scream at someone else’s child who is about to injure itself, but we are not talking of those exceptional situations. In any other situation would you give corrective feedback to someone else’s child? Would you give feedback to another’s spouse? In most situations, you would not. Therefore, we have to think, am I the right person to give this feedback or is someone else better suited? Am I a relative? Am I a friend? Am I an authority in any way to give correct feedback? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you can proceed to the next one.

Do I have the right motive to give corrective feedback?

‘It is said that we can control two things in our life, our desires and our motives. Our desires govern what we want and our motives tell us why we want it. In many cases, we may correct others because we want to settle old accounts. We may have a grudge against them and we may use the opportunity to correct them, simply to exact our vengeance. But this should not be our motive. It should be to help them as a friend. We should be conscientious that our motive is appropriate; we want to help them come out of the wrong they are doing. Feedback from a place of love may seem unpalatable, but it tastes the sweetest if done appropriately and has the right effect.

Do I know the right way to give corrective feedback?

‘Jack was an electrical engineer. His days were exhausting and mentally demanding; he would need to deal with complex physics as part of his design work. One oversight could lead to his company losing crores of rupees, or worse, him getting fired. It was a Thursday and Jack was the most tired he had ever been. All he wanted to do was to eat dinner with his wife, Jill. As you may have guessed by now, this story is made up but I promise you, it serves a purpose! Jill was a chef by profession and loved treating her husband to her new, experimental dishes. She was excited for him to come home so he could taste her new recipe for soup.

  ‘When Jack came home, his face was drained of colour from fatigue. He threw his briefcase on the floor, loosened his tie, greeted his wife and sat at the dining table. ‘This soup looks delicious,’ he said.

  ‘“It’s a special recipe that I have been working on all day. I wanted you to taste it first,” a giddy Jill said.

  ‘Jack took a ladle and poured himself the creamy red soup. He looked up at his beaming wife, watching her every move. She slid a spoon across the table for him and then put both hands under her chin, elbows on the dining table, and leaned forward. Jack slurped a spoonful. Tomatoes, good. Chillies, good. Salt, bad. The soup was totally bland.

  ‘What would you do in this situation? You’ve just had a terrible day at work. How would you tell your wife about the poor quality of her cooking?

  ‘Thankfully, Jack “engineered” a plan on the spot. He grabbed another spoon from the cutlery drawer and said, smiling, “It’s been so long since I’ve lovingly fed you. Come and try this.” Saying so he fed her some soup.

  ‘“Oh! I forgot the salt,” she jumped up, arriving at the conclusion by herself.

  ‘Jack could have easily criticized his wife’s soup using unkind words. Instead, he chose to give his feedback with sensitivity. People are usually resilient. They can stand being wrong, but only when it is pointed out to them with love. Being blunt and abusive can be emotionally draining for both, and the person receiving the feedback switches off after some time. As is commonly said, “It was not what you said, it’s how you said it.” Our tone of voice, body language and facial expressions account for more than the words we use.

Is it the right time?

‘The most ironic moment of my life occurred at Soho Square, central London. I had just finished giving a one-hour presentation on overcoming fault-finding, and a man came up to me at the end and said, “Thank you for the class, but I really hated it.” I sat there stunned as he listed in detail what he did not like about the class and my delivery. I felt as Jill would have if Jack had shrieked about the bland soup. It was horrible to experience someone giving me harsh feedback immediately after I had poured my heart and soul out. It may have been the case that my talk was atrocious, but like a man who misses his flight, this person had got the timing all wrong. If he had said the same things to me a few days later, we would have both been in a better state of mind. We should not simply let our anger loose—we should explain it. When we express what we feel, we do so at the risk of seeming unpleasant, but when we take the time to explain our emotions to people, they might be able to empathize with us. The bottom line: hot heads do not give good feedback—choose a better time.

  ‘Taking the time to ask these four questions before giving somebody correctional feedback can change one’s life. To understand them deeply, contemplation and discussion with someone more experienced than oneself are required as every situation is different. The principles remain the same in every situation, but the application may vary on a case-to-case basis, depending on the gravity of the situation or even our relationship with the person. We would not correct our spouses in the same manner we would our children. One size does not fit all, neither do our methods to correct.’

  ‘This practice will take some time to implement, and form into a habit,’ Harry said, as he looked away from the steering wheel momentarily to look at me.

  ‘You’re right,’ I nodded. ‘Having the knowledge of something is far from mastering it. Giving feedback badly is an addiction. Just as a smokerknows that cigarettes can kill him but smokes nonetheless, similarly the way we interact with others becomes an addiction. We know when we are careless, but our habits force us to act in a certain way.

  Harry’s expression reverted to one I had seen earlier in this car journey. His face dropped and his breathing slowed. ‘When I return from the office I am usually stressed,’ he whispered. ‘I am not like that guy in the story. I really lash out over trivial issues. I did not realize that all these small acts of contempt could lead up to what happened the other night. Lalita and I got into a huge argument over something trivial which I can’t even remember now. The fight reached its crescendo, and she screamed at me saying she wanted a divorce! Divorce? How can she want a divorce after all we have been through?’ At this point, Harry was talking to himself, churning his emotions. ‘What would my family think if I got divorced? Would my friends judge me? I suppose being careless about little things can really prove to be fatal. But I really do love my wife, and I know I need to change, but how can I ever forgive her for saying something so cruel and hurtful?’

  Another question loaded with emotion, I thought to myself. I looked out of the car window. We were driving past couples holding hands and walking along the coastline. I said, ‘Let me tell you about something worse.’

Summary:

  • Saying things in anger damages our relationships. Hence, we should try to avoid doing so.
  • If we need to give corrective feedback, we should invest tonnes of praise and trust into a person before doing so.
  • Think: With regard to the story in Nepal, I could deal with the emotional hurt because I realized how much the individual correcting me had done for me in the past.
  • Corrective feedback is an art. It has four principles. Ask yourself: 
  1. Am I the right person to give corrective feedback?
  2. Do I have the right motive to give corrective feedback?
  3. Do I know the right way to give corrective feedback?
  4. Is it the right time?

  • The smooth implementation of these four principles takes time because giving corrective feedback insensitively has become an addictive habit for many.




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