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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

The Therapeutic Nature of Feedback From My Colleagues

In the course of my job, I'm used to gathering feedback. But this time it was personal.

I am one of the lucky ones. I work with a dedicated and talented team of individuals and, over the years, we have become used to regularly sharing ideas and offering opinions to one another. Soliciting formal feedback from my colleagues about how I am doing, however, is rather like the difference between bumping into my therapist in the street and her asking me how I am, compared with how the same question feels when I'm sitting in front of her in her office.

 A photograph of a red lounge chair against a green wallpaper background
Questions are felt differently in different chairs.

How are you?

The somber manner in which the words gather emphasis and linger in the air with extraordinary weight. My desperate attempt to compress all of today's hopes, fears, and anxieties into a meaningful, honest and half coherent response. Anyone who's ever sat in that chair will know that this is an altogether different kind of conversation.

Back at my desk, reading what people have decided to offer by way of feedback, I got to reflect some more on how similar this is to what is happening on the therapeutic couch.

Three things, in particular, come to mind.

First, it's not actually about finding flaws. In his fictional work, Therapy, David Lodge once observed that "Analysis has a way of unravelling the self: the longer you pull on the thread, the more flaws you find." That is certainly what it feels like at the beginning. But, in the end, both therapy and feedback are more about building than unravelling.

Second, it's not supposed to make you feel better. Again, allow me to quote Sheldon B. Kopp, If You Meet Buddha on the Road, Kill Him: The Pilgrimage Of Psychotherapy Patients: "Though the patient enters therapy insisting that he wants to change, more often than not, what he really wants is to remain the same and to get the therapist to make him feel better.” How often, I wonder, do we ask for feedback simply because we want our team to make us feel better about ourselves?

Finally, it's never about actually finding oneself. At the end of his life, Dr. Oliver Sacks, who had famously met his analyst twice a week for 42 years (longer than any other recorded therapeutic relationship), spoke of only after all these years beginning to make some progress. The point is this: therapy and feedback are long, winding roads that have an uncanny habit of throwing up more dead-ends than shortcuts along the way. It's a way of being, more than a way of being aware.

So when my colleagues ask me how it felt to gather feedback this week, my mind goes straight to how things are when I speak about seeing my therapist: I never look forward to it. It's like holding up a mirror and not always liking what I see. But there is no doubt I'll be back on the couch for more next week.

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