Megan CampbellMay 31, 2017

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Sometimes, feedback doesn’t feel great. On a personal level, we’ve all had the experience of receiving tough feedback, blunt criticisms that were hard to hear. While there are strategies to deal with tough feedback, it can easily cause tension, or make us feel attacked or ostracized. And between government and citizens, feedback can be equally contentious and fraught.

Take the issue of town halls that was recently in the news in the US. In February, many Republican US representatives skipped in-person town halls with their constituents. Town halls that were held live were lively to say the least, with some crowds shouting down their representatives. Senator Marco Rubio said, among other things, that he didn’t attend his town hall because they get “rude and stupid.” Others were less animated, but still never quite resulted in dialogue between candidate and constituent. Town halls might be an important way for representatives to hear feedback from their constituents – but they don’t seem like a lot of fun for either side.

That matters if it limits their effectiveness. Think back to how your negative experiences hearing tough feedback have shaped you. Now, when you know feedback is coming, do you grit your teeth? Tense your shoulders? How receptive to hearing and acting on the feedback are you when you anticipate the process of receiving it will be unpleasant? Not very, I would imagine.

Fun interactions can be effective and instructive. Reveal News from the Center for Investigative Reporting found last year that stand-up comedy routines were effective at conveying serious information about toxic environmental contamination. Recently I’ve been reading Josh Lerner’s Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics. He posits that incorporating game-like elements, like scores, levels, sounds and visuals, could increase democratic participation. It already appears to be working for cities, particularly in Latin America. The Theater of Public Policy is using improv to illuminate public policy debates. If we can make discussions of trash services fun, why not feedback interactions?

We can be so focused on representative, complete feedback data that we might forget that how people feel about the feedback they hear can affect how willing they are to listen and respond.

Fun might not be exactly what you aim for – but an encouraging, nourishing, empowering experience might be, if it makes it easier for you, your colleagues or your elected representatives to be receptive to feedback. I’m not advocating doing away with contention or conflict entirely. There’s a place for those and sometimes grabbing your placard and shouting down a speaker is a rational and important thing to do. But sometimes, when it cuts off vitally necessary conversation, it might not be the most effective strategy.

Are you interested in discussing how to make feedback more powerful? Registration is open for our annual Feedback Summit. This year, we’ll be talking about feedback and power- how it empowers organizations to be more agile, how it empowers beneficiaries in a service-delivery context, and how it empowers constituents, even when their governments aren’t asking for feedback. Register now for $200 off the regular ticket price, and send any questions our way at [email protected].org.

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