“Do you notice you say that while you read?” said Chris.
“Say what?” I answered, looking up from my newspaper.
“You say ‘huh’ to yourself if you’re reading something interesting.”
“No,” I said laughing, “Like most people I’m completely unaware of my behavior.”
“I was just wondering, because both you and dad do that.”
My brother Chris gave me a taste of my own medicine during our conversation last month. He reminded me that we are as aware of our own behavior as a dog is of its tail. I’ve been stressing this lesson in my coaching conversations recently because it explains so much about human, and especially roommate, interactions.
One of my favorite high school teachers loathed the way his college roommate banged his toothbrush against the sink after brushing his teeth every morning. How is it possible to be bothered by something so trivial and remember it fifty years later?
When we observe someone else’s actions we automatically assume that they’re aware of it too. If the behavior is annoying, provocative, or negative then it follows that they do it to bother us. “If they wanted to stop they would,” we say to ourselves. But often they have no choice—how can you make a decision about something you’re unaware of?
Our behavioral blindness also complicates feedback conversations like the one Chris and I had. When a roommate or family member shines light on your bothersome behavior it will probably surprise you. Taking feedback well requires you to take ownership for what you did or failed to do, but we don’t always feel responsible for our behavior. When coupled with the negativity that’s built up in the other person, these conversations rarely end well.
So how can we give or receive feedback better?
- Realize the importance of feedback. Calling someone out is uncomfortable, but failing to do so impedes learning and eats away at relationships. When you’re the one being called out, remember that outside the classroom, learning is a messy process of scraped knees and bruised hearts.
- Rehearse. If you struggle with confrontation, scribble down your points beforehand. Include the behavior, how you’d specifically like for them to improve, and the situation in which they’ll be most open. When you’re receiving feedback, make sure you know exactly what’s being asked of you, which is difficult when you feel hurt.
- Frame feedback in the form of a question as Chris did above. “Do you notice that you _____? Did you know it bothers me when you _____?” This often lessens the blow, and allows the other person to acknowledge their behavior.
- Come from a place of compassion. Remind the person that they are not their behavior. Remind them you’re open to hear any feedback they have for you. Remind yourself that it’s unfair to assume they bang their toothbrush to annoy you.