“Listen,” I heard him say in his young, tough voice as I gathered my boxing gloves and sweaty wraps and stuffed them in my husband’s weathered yellow bike bag. “I want to talk to you.” In the middle of friendly suburban mom goodbyes, my boxing instructor had pulled aside a classmate of mine who was scheduled to spar in a bout in downtown Boston in a few days. But first he looked her in the eye, and spoke carefully and quietly. “I want to talk to you about your technique. But before I do, I want you to know: I am only giving you this feedback because I really want to see you succeed. Do you want to hear it?” She nodded vigorously and stepped away from the crowd of us to take the time to really hear what he had to say. Her openness to change was obvious even from outside the conversation. Her shoulders were relaxed, her eyes were open, and she was looking at him. She trusted him to have the right expertise, and to know how to observe and engage her. He knew how to deliver punches, and feedback too, in just the right way. And the stakes were high enough to motivate her to be at her best. She’s going to be getting hit, over and over, and hitting back, maybe, in front of a lot of people. She’s got to protect something that couldn’t be less abstract: her own physical being, the same person who is a mom to two daughters and at the center of their universe. That’s a lot to keep safe.
Witnessing their exchange made me think of work, from the punches we take in the ring in front of an audience –and also those punches that we feel and throw out of the ring, those punches that come when we don’t even know there’s a ring nearby. Boxing is clean, tidy fighting. It happens in one place and everyone involved knows they are involved. Work in an office isn’t like that. Sometimes you just get pummeled, metaphorically speaking.
But feedback at work can be delivered as though it’s by a good boxing instructor. When it is delivered well, it will be received and applied with a great deal more care and attention than feedback that is indirect, implied, rudely stated or delivered without consent.
Next time you have something you need someone to hear, and it will involve change on their part, ask them if they are ready for it. Look for signs that they will hear you. Show them that you can listen to them. When you want to say it, lay it out straight. Demonstrate the wrong way. Demonstrate the right way. Point out differences in each way. And most importantly, DO want them to succeed. Want them to succeed enough that they can hear it in your voice. And then tell them. Tell them. Because in a ring-less world, most of us are listening hard to hear anyone cheering for us.