Match the feedback to necessity, potential and desired outcome. If you’re teaching, speak to the individual’s need, capacity and desire; if you’re managing, speak to the task and how to get it done. Be understanding and supportive, even as you keep directing toward the goal.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vivien Schapera.
Vivien is the author of a textbook entitled The Complete Guide to Crystal Surgery (2020). She has rare expertise in each of our 3 layers of existence — the physical, the mental and the spiritual; and she specializes in translating intuitive, energetic and spiritual dynamics into practical information for celebrating life. In Everyday Magic (2002), Vivien relates how the spirit world guided her, from childhood in Apartheid South Africa, through coming to the USA, and founding FourWinds Academy, a school for training healers. Vivien wrote The Energy of Money A Healer’s Guide in Massage & Bodywork (Feb./Mar. 2004), as a spin off from her book How to Lose Weight and Gain Money (2004). Internationally renowned as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, and co-author of Guided Lessons for Students of the Alexander Technique (2010), after 25 years of intense research, Vivien is poised to also burst forth as a world leader in crystal healing.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I got started on my career in South Africa after finishing my training in London in 1983. I had to go to London to meet certification requirements, because there was only one Alexander teacher in South Africa at that time. In a nutshell, the Alexander Technique teaches us how to retrain neuromuscular dynamics. Two of us certified at that time and returned to South Africa to commence our careers. Doing something unknown can be a big disadvantage — or it can be a big advantage — and for me, it turned into a very big advantage. A local suburban newspaper picked up my story, published a back-page article, and I got 11 new clients in one day. Because of the unusual response to the article, the journalist then went as big as she could and submitted a bigger, better article to Cosmopolitan magazine, who also got an unusually big response.
My practice grew very, very quickly. I had to give it all up when we immigrated to the US, but just before we left, I met an acupuncturist who had moved to Cape Town from France, and I observed how rapidly he had put his acupuncture practice together in Cape Town, despite being new to the city. I made a mental note that once one has learned how to establish a business, that is clearly a (mysteriously) portable skill and I resolved to harness that for myself once in the USA. Energy follows intention and that is exactly what happened.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Although my career began with a private practice, my husband and I now have a corporation that encompasses our private practices, two schools, an independent press, a retail business, a commercial website and a YouTube channel. Our company stands out because of the personal touch — we have managed to preserve a client-centered approach through every business interaction and transaction — whether it is a private healing session or a retail transaction. In fact, our retail business is called “Personal Touch Stones.”
I personally don’t do anything purely for the sake of earning money — I do what I do because I enjoy connecting with people. For example, I know we could earn more money if we had an online retail store, but I don’t have any desire to spend my time building something that doesn’t actually connect me directly to people. I have an unusual and rather weird talent — I can match people and crystals. If people purchase online by clicking on a button, then I won’t get to meet them and that doesn’t appeal to me — I mean, what’s the fun in that? On the other hand, I don’t like to see a business opportunity go to waste, so I plan to delegate the project to someone who enjoys the kind of work it entails.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have so many weird and wonderful tales that I had to write a book! It’s called Everyday Magic (2002) and we’re about to publish it as an e-book. Since we’re talking about career development, I think I’ll share a story about how God can direct us through other people. Before I begin, I have to admit upfront that even I can’t believe my stories — except that I do have physical evidence.
This happened in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport c. 1997. I was flying to New York for a meeting and needed to climb aboard the shuttle to go to the Comair terminal. Waiting in line, I felt like someone was “sending me energy,” and of course I dismissed this as nonsense. When I got on the shuttle, I sat down next to the baggage rack so that no one could sit next to me. The last person to climb aboard was a man in pilot’s uniform. He waved me on a seat so he could sit next to me. As soon as he was seated, he dipped his hand into his pocket, and pulled out a quartz pebble which he gave to me:
“I’m supposed to give this to you,” he said, “it’s a healing stone from the Cherokee Reserve. You are a healer who will transform many peoples lives. You are supposed to have it.” He paused momentarily, then introduced himself. “My tribal name is Black Wolf.” [p. 249, Everyday Magic, 2002.]
There’s much more to the story (of course) and afterwards I really doubted myself, but I did have the quartz pebble plus a bear fetish that he gave me, to prove it had happened. It was easier to think that I had dreamed of an angel than to think that a flesh and blood pilot had had this unusual interaction with me. About two years later a Comair pilot came to me for some sessions and he confirmed that “Black Wolf” was one of his colleagues.
More to the point, I considered myself to be a teacher of the Alexander Technique and I was hesitant to call myself a healer. From that interaction, I understood that certain vocations are bestowed upon us by a combination of nurtured talent and public request. I gradually grew into my career as a healer, using the Alexander Technique as my platform.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This story is from when we first started here in the US and it still cracks me up to think of it! Especially as I didn’t get the joke for about 10 years.
We arrived in the US at the end of 1991, and in the spring of 1992, there was an airfare war. We were able to get bargain-priced tickets to Boston and San Francisco and we dearly wanted to visit our friends and relatives who lived in those two cities. I’d just begun establishing my private practice, and I had to tell my new clients that I was going on vacation.
This is how the conversation went:
Me: “We’re going on vacation, and we will be away for two weeks.”
Client: “Two weeks???”
Me: “Yes, I know it’s short, but it’s all we can afford at this time.”
So, what you have to get, is that only people living in the USA can see a joke here. And that is very, very significant. It took me about 10 years of living in this country to realize that my client was not asking why such a short vacation, but she was exclaiming about how long it was. Over those 10 years I learned that the majority of Americans take long weekends at most, usually organized around public holidays to eke out a week’s vacation. One of the American dreams seems to be to work and work and work and work, and then retire young in order to “have a life.”
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Vacations!!! Understand vacations — the point, the function, the dynamic and introduce a policy of giving your employees a scientifically recommended amount of vacation time.
In 2018, I was leaving for a trip to England, after which I was going to Denver on a buying trip, making a total of three weeks of travel. One of my most successful clients commented on the length that I would be away.
I looked him square in the eyes and said: “This country doesn’t understand vacations. In the rest of the world we all know that a vacation needs to be three weeks — one week to unwind, one week to enjoy “just being,” and one week to prepare to go back to work.”
“I’ve never heard of that!” he said, with an edge of doubt.
“That’s because it’s kept a secret here and the media doesn’t publish such articles in this country,” I explained.
My first day in London there was a full-page spread in the newspaper on the importance of vacations, including the scientific evidence indicating that for a vacation to be truly effective, it needs to be three weeks in length. I immediately photographed the article and texted the info to him.
Vacations prevent burnout, but also PROMOTE creativity, enthusiasm and productivity. As a specialist in the nervous system, this is my recommendation: Put a strong vacation policy in place. Instead of paying for employees to attend expensive trainings, send them on vacation, and see what happens next!
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me “leadership” is the ability to envision the future. Such meaning is inherent in the term — because that is the action of leadership — perceiving potential, perceiving a path, and then leading others toward a desired future.
I consider Central Park in Manhattan to exemplify such vision, especially when we consider that it was proposed and planned in the 1850’s — long before it became a need. What’s even more interesting is that the idea preceded the leadership. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux selected the site and submitted a winning design in response to a contest.
The contest itself was prompted by the New York elite, who wanted to prove that Americans are not bound only by money-making values, but do also appreciate nature and the land. There is no one name attached to the concept of Central Park — the idea came from group thinking — truly something to ponder.
Importantly, “leadership” is very different from “management” even though many managers can be leaders too.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
In the Alexander Technique there is no separation of mind and body, we are one psychophysical whole. If our minds are tense, it will show up in our bodies. If our bodies are tense it will show up in our minds. Consequently, we can go in through either gate — the mind or the body — to affect the whole. To cut to the chase, the area that expresses our tension the most is typically the neck. The reason is because we have a reflex, called the startle reflex. When the startle reflex is triggered, the head pulls back, the neck muscles contract and the shoulders tighten. Modern life is full of startle reflex triggers and we keep inviting more of these triggers into our daily life — electronic alarms, bells, pings, dings and chimes. That would be enough, but then we also have time pressures and numerous other demands that weigh on our nervous systems. One of the key dynamics of the Alexander Technique is to learn how to free the neck to restore optimal functioning.
The most outstanding story comes from a colleague who shared this at one of our meetings. This teacher’s student was a professor at the local college, who was a foreign national. He went home on a visit, and was picked up by the police and taken away. This was an extremely threatening situation as it was widely known that people were “disappearing.” At a certain point in his interrogation he was told to hand over his ID documents. He recognized this to be very dangerous. In fear of his life, he decided he would not act until he had freed his neck! So, he just sat, and gave his directions for freeing his neck until the muscles began to release. He came out of panic and his thinking cleared. Once his neck was free, he remembered that he had his USA University ID card with him, and that is what he handed over. Upon seeing this ID card, the interrogators conferred briefly, returned the card to him and told him he was free to go, pretending it was a case of mistaken identity.
I cannot match the drama of that moment, and nor do I want to! I think that releasing stress and preparing ourselves in mind and body, is best done as a daily practice. A few years ago, I re-organized my work schedule so that I can have time to meditate and “just be me” every morning to prepare for the day. My work is so superior when I do this, and so is my experience of the day itself.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?
About 50% of my work is solo, and 50% is project and team-based. I have to be honest and admit that I am much more comfortable working solo. I can go at my own pace and do things my own way, to my own standard. But I was very much inspired by the movie trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. It made a huge impact on me to see such a magnificent, creative accomplishment that only a team can manifest. This encouraged me to go bigger.
My most recent team experience was getting my new book done. I put off making this book for years because it seemed impossible to do and there was nobody who could do it. We needed to turn material suited only to live demonstration, with careful explanation of every element, into a 2-D fixed presentation. My long-time colleague is a brilliant artist and designer, and she wanted to see the book done. Once she was willing to tackle the project, I decided to use my “stepping-stone technique” — just begin and go step-by-step solving each problem as it presents. If I said it once I said it 100 times: “We’ll only know how to make this book once we’ve finished it!”
To make the book, we needed a writer (me), a designer, a photographer, a sloe of models, an editor, an indexer and, of course, a printer. To support the book, both in content and marketing, we also needed a website, with all the roles that entails, and a YouTube channel, with all the personnel and talent that entails.
We did NOT complete the book before lockdown, and getting the book finished was brutal. Giving feedback was tricky, because I was the only one who could possibly understand the needs, and details, of the book. Rather than having each contributor work alone, we had to work together, guiding the task, to reach the necessary result.
With lockdown, I could not sit next to them anymore, and we had to work remote. Ouch! Everything took 3–4 times as long, and “getting things right” became very, very thorny. It’s one thing to sit next to someone, steering their work progressively in the desired direction, and quite another to be working in separate locations, trying to understand, anticipate and respond to the needs of the task. Tasks that could have been done together in two hours, were requiring 6–8 hours.
I just had to accept reality and get on with it.
This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?
At first, I was puzzled by this question, as well as by the linking of “honest” with “hurtful” in the title of this interview. Then it clicked. I’d got in touch with this insight: There is nothing to make my heart sink more quickly than hearing the words “To be perfectly honest …” and “Quite frankly …,” because one is virtually guaranteed that the words that follow are going to be either hurtful or dismissive.
This is what I’ve learned:
- It’s only through honest feedback that you can keep a vision or project on track.
- Withholding feedback is passive aggressive and destructive.
- Silence can be misunderstood as endorsement. If you reinforce something you don’t want, you won’t ever be able to get rid of it.
- Followers are depending on your feedback. Feedback is regarded as interest and support, and the lack of it is interpreted as exactly what it is — lack of interest, lack of support, not caring and not knowing.
Leaders appreciate their followers … and followers appreciate their leaders. The roles are interdependent and as a system it works when everyone does their share.
One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Especially for remote work, if your feedback could be construed as critical, use the phone rather than a written communication. A written communication is “cast in stone” and the recipient can read and re-read the words, dwelling on hurt and misunderstanding. In a conversation, the water keeps flowing under the bridge, and you can monitor the reaction, and the mood. What will be remembered, is-, and that needs to be monitored and steered to a positive and energizing conclusion.
Match the feedback to necessity, potential and desired outcome. If you’re teaching, speak to the individual’s need, capacity and desire; if you’re managing, speak to the task and how to get it done. Be understanding and supportive, even as you keep directing toward the goal.
Be factual and deliver a balanced message. It’s the old “good news, bad news” story. Don’t deliver the bad news until you’ve also identified the good news, and be sure to speak to both. If there are errors, point them out — then also point out what is correct — and highlight the strengths inherent in correcting the errors. Frame the message positively. Saying “Not good enough,” is a downer, whereas expressing “This is competent, but doesn’t yet express your genius,” and then asking “What else would you like to add?” is respectful, encouraging and builds self-esteem.
Use feedback to empower, not undermine. Rather say how to improve than criticize performance. “You’re rambling, you need to edit this” leaves an empty feeling. “If you add more detail here, and shorten this part here, then I think your message will pack a punch,” adds know-how and inspiration. Positive acknowledgment is more constructive than praise. “Oh, OK, good job,” deflates the energy. Saying “Look at all this work you’ve done. This must have taken a long time — thank you!” takes everyone upward. Noticing details and expressing targeted appreciation is very effective.
End feedback with a positive message. The heart goes to the beat of positive/positive, positive/positive whereas the brain goes to the beat of positive/negative, positive/negative. Consciously train yourself to finish conversations (even with yourself) on a positive note.
Give credit where it’s due. When your feedback generates success, allow the recipient to own that success, and do not claim it for yourself. Engender trust and be generous, and your future feedback will be well received.
When doing the book, I had to remember to bear in mind my team members’ motivations in participating in the project. In each case, the primary motivation was that they wanted to help me. A secondary motivation was that they wanted contribute to the legacy. My feedback needed to respect their motives. No matter how frustrated I was, and how impatient I got, with the project, I needed to remember to say these truths:
- “I can’t tell you how grateful I am for what you’re doing.”
- “OMG, only you could have helped me with this!”
- “This is great! You have no idea how many people are going to be helped by this.”
- “Wow, you spent a lot of time on this.”
And most important: “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.
How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
The written word can be flat and confusing. Add to that: the meaning of words is in the mind of the beholder. We use tone of voice, and cadence, to create dimension, now we’re using emojis.
Some words can come across meaning the exact opposite of what you intend — here is an example: “It’s all downhill from here” is an expression that could mean “from here we can expect things to get worse and worse” or “from here we can expect things to get easier and easier.” I have discovered that our language is littered with such paradoxes.
Expect problems with confusion and misunderstanding, and build your communication accordingly. No short-cuts. Go one step at a time checking and re-checking that you’re on the same page and not talking at cross purposes. Choice of verbs helps tremendously, because verbs can add energy, movement and tone.
For email I have learned to follow a rule of thumb: One message at a time. The beginning is slow and tedious, but this method saves a lot of time in the end, and can also save us from hurt feelings, taking offense and wasted effort.
Email as a medium has too many different uses, so we don’t know what to expect when we open an email. The visual of dense text can be off-putting. Ask yourself: Is this a letter or a message? If it is a message, send it as an email. If it is a letter, send it as a letter attached to the email. If it is feedback, send it in a structured format, attached to the email. Keep all information together in one document — don’t put some information in the email, and some information in the attachment, as that is the way information gets lost.
Don’t do anything quickly thinking the other party “will understand.” It pays to wait. I’ve consciously slowed myself down several times, reminding myself to read and re-read communications, giving myself time to find my assumptions, errors in thinking, and the conclusions that I’ve jumped to.
Encourage your staff to use a big screen for reading business communications. The amount of weirdness that has come out of people glancing at their phone screens, and not viewing the communication in the right way for their brains to process the information successfully, has become a very big issue.
In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?
Yes, there is a “best time” — and the “best time” is “the most appropriate time.” Defining “appropriate timing” will always be in accordance with the circumstances. Sometimes it is obvious, and sometimes we can only see it with hindsight. When we can only see it with hindsight, then we must learn so that in the future we can draw from the category of “past-experience-tells-us.”
Feedback should be given in accordance with company policy. It’s very alarming to be told: “There’s something I need to talk to you about.” Those words set in motion a hideous spiral of wondering and generate all kinds of stress and misery, as well as wasted energy imagining what this could be about. “It’s time for your review, and I have some exciting ideas I want to talk to you about” is a much more constructive way to go.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
“A great boss” cares equally about the wellbeing of the project and your wellbeing as a person. A great boss feels like a friend and mentor.
On the down side: What a misery to work for someone who doesn’t like you, and what a misery not to like your boss!
On the up side: A great boss reaches beyond her personal circle. A great boss touches the lives of everyone connected to her employees. When I was writing a book with my friend, and co-author Drew, he loved quoting his former bosses. I would say something like “Yes people “always” do something until, one day, they don’t,” and he would say: “Yes, that’s what George said — ‘they all pay until they don’t.’” It was fun. It felt like there were extra minds in the room. It was affirming. I was saying the same words as the CEO of a bank!
Sharing lessons from a great boss is a wonderful way to learn, and very empowering!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Yes, and thank you for asking! I would love to see a “Listening Movement.”
About 16 years ago, after some reflection, I hypothesized that the key to a better life lies in improving communication. I decided to run a little empirical project by observing my communication, and continuously upgrading my style and method, hoping to become more and more successful in getting my message across, as well as improving my relationships with others. After two years I was mighty discouraged. I’m pretty much successful at almost everything I do, but despite all efforts, I could see no improvement.
Upon analysis, I realized that communication requires two parties — a sender and a receiver. To succeed in improvement, both parties need to be paying attention to upgrading the standard. With no conscious attention being paid to receiving communications, there was little chance of success.
Imagine if each and every one of us were to upgrade our listening skills? Now that could truly change the world — and at no cost at all!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote in this context is “The thing and its opposite live in the same space.” For example, we have a wonderfully insightful expression “Less is more.”
I came to this insight by contemplating the yin yang diagram, and it is an important insight that led me to the term “everyday magic,” which has become the water that I swim in.
The Alexander Technique is about change, so I wanted to understand the principles of change, including the direction in which change is bound to happen. All such information is inherent in the yin yang diagram and the yin yang principle, and it is important to apprehend that change is not random. When we change, we change toward the opposite.
We all live by this truth. Daily, day changes into night, night changes into day. Annually summer becomes winter, winter becomes summer. Over a lifetime, as we age, young becomes old. Over centuries, the planet changes — grasslands can become deserts, like the Sahara.
In business, we also see cycles. When I began publishing books, Barnes & Noble was the behemoth that sold the “winners” books, and Amazon was for “losers.” We see an “opposite” landscape now, including that Amazon is building brick and mortar stores! Is Amazon getting too big? Let’s see what happens next!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Yes, please come and visit me. My website is a big, innovative adventure with all kinds of goodies. You can read my blogs, access my books, link to my social media accounts, plus there’s a contact form you can use to get in touch with me. Best of all, you can view the PDF of my new book The Complete Guide to Crystal Surgery. It is an innovative work of original writing, drawings, diagrams and photographs and I’m very, very proud of my team. Even if you aren’t one bit interested in crystal healing please swing by.
Here is the link: www.CrystalHealingTechniques.com
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.