Pandemic skills: Giving feedback successfully: I Like … I wish … What if … ?

Theater and acting: a life skill [icon from thenounproject.com]

During this pandemic, many of us have been stuck in front of our screens, like talking heads (Max Headroom, anyone?). If “sitting is the new smoking” (or perhaps not), then I’ve been “smoking” a lot.

Virtual meetings are draining, and I’m on them up to 8 hours a day, even busier now with all the EHR modifications, keeping up with policy changes, what Covid-testing is available, how we admit, treat, discharge, follow, track patients.

At the ends of long hours, long days, long weeks, our nerves are frayed.

I’ve observed that interactions between people have everything to do with the interpersonal skills of the individuals. Sometimes the conversation does NOT go well. Whether it is by email (worst for crucial conversations), by phone (slightly less bad), by online video meeting (slightly less bad) or in person (best, when possible), it is certainly worsened by the pandemic situation.

I’ve been taking a Story Skills Workshop (by Seth Godin and Bernadette Jiwa) that recently concluded. I have to say that I’ve learned quite a lot, and not what I was expecting to learn. I highly, highly recommend it. Seth and Bernadette offer a series of online lessons, released over time. There are about 6 expert coaches, and the instruction is to sign up for an interest group or ‘accountability group’. You’re given a story structure (the 5 C’s: Context, Catalyst, Complication, Change, Consequence) and then specific lessons to write and polish specific elements of your own story in this framework. The cool part is the instruction to ‘first write your own story, and then go comment on at least 5 others.’

  • I learned that it is possible, in an online-only course, to develop a sense of community and collegiality in a short 30 days.
  • I learned that it is crucial to be gentle in first contact with others online. For example, when giving feedback on others’ stories, DO NOT start right in with ‘why don’t you add more Emotion to that moment in your story?’ You’ll learn (as did I) that conversation either stops or becomes defensive. Remember that online conversations carry ZERO nonverbal: no Kind tone of voice, no Friendly posture. All you see are the words, and it is automatic to imagine them coming from a frowning critic with crossed arms, shaking his brutish head. [Pause for self-reflection amongst my blog-readers, as well as from myself…]
  • Instead, try something my theater-trained son taught me:

‘I like… I wish… What if …’

My highly emotionally intelligent son
  • Framing any response this way allows your recipient to hear something positive, then a neutrally posed concern, followed by a tentative suggestion. Having been on both sides of such a well-formed critique, I can say: it is EASY to write, doesn’t take longer, and on the receiving end FEELS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. It FEELS like a close friend, reaching a hand over to pull you up to a higher step.
  • FOR EXAMPLE: Take one of my story-critiques of a co-participant in the story workshop, not done well on my part: “Why don’t you add more emotion to your story? It reads like a timeline, but nothing about what you felt, or how that impacted you.” I thought I was clever, to point out one of the main points of that week’s lesson. What I received was… no response. Hmm.
  • Rephrasing the reply using this framework, when I replied to a different participant’s story, sounded like this: “Hi, Joe! I liked your story, especially the unexpected part about running away from home at 16. I wish I could be there at that moment when you made the decision, everything boiling-over, and then a crucial moment. What if you paused in your story and told us what you were thinking and feeling right then? I would be riveted.” Guess what? We had a great online conversation after that, and he re-wrote his story, and I WAS RIVETED. Win-win.

CMIO’s take? Story telling: cool. Gentle, effective feedback: cooler. Don’t we all need to get better at this?

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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