Make it safe — Feedback can be a very personal thing. Avoid delivering it in front of an audience, even a small one. Book time privately with the other person to say what you’d like to say.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Miller of Mindful Communication.
For over 5 years, Jonathan has worked to explore, apply, teach and coach around the art and science of communication, specifically in the realm of conflict management. He has trained extensively in several communication systems including Nonviolent Communication, the Harvard Negotiation Project, Landmark Worldwide, and more. His methodology is also heavily influenced by my Vipassana meditation practice, of which he has spent over 2,000 hours practicing.
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?
My interest in communication started in a 1984 GMC Vandura. My partner and I had always dreamed of going on a long road-trip around North America to explore its national parks and cities.
Two years later, we found ourselves quitting our jobs and setting off on what we anticipated being the trip of a lifetime. We also had a strong relationship (with the occasional argument) and hadn’t come up against anything we didn’t think we could handle.
Unfortunately, that notion was squashed within a few days of our trip.
Turns out living in a tiny space with another full-sized adult is harder than it seems. Getting into each other’s personal space was a daily occurrence. It wasn’t going as smoothly as we predicted.
A major shift happened one night as we cooked dinner. I sat there cutting vegetables as she watched over the stove. I mindlessly asked, “Hey, can you pass me that potato?”
“I’m in the middle of doing something!” she snapped back. We were both taken aback by that response. I was not angry, but rather shocked. And frankly, so was she.
Fortunately, we had the wherewithal to sit down and analyze what had happened.
It turns out our upbringings came into play and had some assumptions playing out in the background.
When I posed the question, what she heard was, “Stop what you’re doing, and get me the potato immediately.” Growing up in her household, it was only her and her mom. She learned from an early age that the most important thing to her mom was practicing patience and “waiting your turn.”
When I posed the question, what I meant was,” Whenever you have a moment, could you please get me the potato?” That’s because in my household, I was one of three siblings. If I didn’t say what I needed and make it heard, I didn’t get it.
So naturally, when I asked the question, there was lots of hidden meaning that was left unspoken.
After the incident, we came up with a plan for me to be more specific about my requests while she partnered with me to ask for clarification whenever she was unclear.
Within days, the problem completely disappeared.
This simple change in my communication had completely eliminated a problem I was having.
It was at that moment that I set off on a journey to learn, study and, most importantly, practice anything and everything related to communication, speaking and listening.
What emerged from this was an exceptional relationship with my partner where we no longer fight (or even argue). Better yet, when I got home, I saw my new communication skills impacting relationships with friends, family and, most importantly, my own self-esteem and confidence.
Since then, I have been working with individuals and groups to bring more awareness to the way they communicate at work, at home and beyond.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Aside from my experience studying and implementing various communication systems including Nonviolent Communication, the Harvard Negotiation Project, Landmark Worldwide, and more, I have deeply integrated my Vipassana meditation practice into my experience-based methodology. This ancient practice, of which I have spent over 2,000 hours practicing, has had an incredible impact on my ability to understand myself, human behavior and how people communicate.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Soon after kicking off my business, my wife and I explored the idea of living as digital nomads. After deliberating the logistics, we took a leap of faith and went all-in on our businesses (she is also a professional coach).
As we contemplated our first destination, we got an invite to visit her aunt and uncle in Cape Town, South Africa. As the conversations continued, what opened up for us was an opportunity to consult with a local organization that supports youth entrepreneurs around Africa and the Middle East in order to bring coaching into their organization.
What started off as an idea for a short, 3-month stopover trip turned into a multi-year endeavor to a country we had never set foot in and a consulting gig that would have us taking part in a multi-nation pilot project.
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?
Although this mistake may not be “haha” funny, the mistake I made (that I see many coaches making) is not hiring a coach right away when starting their coaching business. The reason this is funny is that I was asking people to pay me money to be their coach despite being unwilling to pay for a coach myself because, “I can’t afford it.” It’s no surprise that everyone I spoke to about coaching early on couldn’t afford my services either.
Within weeks of hiring a coach, business started rolling in.
There are two lessons worth sharing from this experience:
- Make sure to invest in your own product/service
- Get a coach (regardless if you are a coach or not) if you want to get to where you want to go way faster and more efficiently
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
One simple idea is to create a culture that values energy management. Encourage employees to use all of their vacation time. Create habits around taking breaks every hour to take your eyes off the screen. Move your body often to ensure you’re not sitting in chairs all day.
From a larger perspective, the keywords here are “culture” and “value”. Create a culture where your employees’ values line-up as closely as possible with your organization’s values. People thrive in life as they align themselves more and more to their values.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
My favorite definition is by Kevin Kruse: Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.
Social influence indicates that a leader influences without the use of authority or power. A manager can use their authority to fire someone in order to influence others. This is poor leadership. A robber can also use a weapon to influence others. This is not leadership.
It has others exude maximum effort since it requires others to do the work and have them motivated to do their best. If others are not doing their best, then this would be another indication of poor leadership.
And finally, the achievement of a goal demonstrates movement in a specific direction with a specific objective. A leader who leads without an intended outcome is, again, demonstrating poor leadership. Empowered employees with no direction won’t necessarily take an organization where it wants to go.
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?
There are three aspects to this. The first is doing regular maintenance for your mind and body that will help mitigate the stress in the first place. The second is a routine to do prior to the meeting to get yourself centered, calm and focused. The third are things you can do during the meeting.
As maintenance, have a consistent morning (and evening) routine that gears you up for success each day. That can include exercise, meditation, journaling, visualizing your day, learning something new… regardless of what you fill that time slot with, make sure you at least have a routine.
Pre-meeting, the most important thing you want to do is ensure that you are calm, focused and thinking clearly. This means that you want to engage your parasympathetic nervous system to dampen any sort of fight or flight response in the meeting. Breathing exercises are great for this. I recommend the “box breathing” exercise. Inhale to 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, exhale 4 counts, hold for 4 counts. Repeat this process 1–4 times prior to your meeting. This will help you get focused. Another thing you can do pre-meeting is book a time to think through what your ideal outcome is or mock the conversation with someone you trust.
During the meeting, always start by setting an agenda. Be clear on what the intention of the meeting is, and even state what your ideal outcome for the meeting is. You can ask them what their ideal outcome is as well. By having a mutual purpose to the meeting, you are already on the “same side” as them, working toward solving a problem together (rather than as adversaries). This mindset shift keeps everyone solution-focused and less likely to turn this into an “us vs. them” scenario.
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?
I have worked for years in the marketing space, both on the client and agency sides. This had me managing teams of creatives, designers and programmers, along with cross-functional teams like consumer affairs, public affairs, research & development, IT, and more.
In the past, I was terrible at giving feedback. That’s because I was mostly concerned with avoiding conflict and making sure I “look good.”
Now, as a coach, being authentically straight with people is a key responsibility of mine. I am much less concerned about “looking good” and am entirely focused on having my clients and those I meet be the best version of themselves. Sometimes my feedback may be painful to hear, but rarely do I have negative experiences giving (or hearing) feedback. The result of my honesty is more trust in all of my relationships.
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?
As a leader, if you don’t tell your team what it is that you want (or don’t want), you won’t get it. If you don’t get what you want, you won’t deliver and will ultimately fail your team as a leader.
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.
- Make it safe — Feedback can be a very personal thing. Avoid delivering it in front of an audience, even a small one. Book time privately with the other person to say what you’d like to say.
- Make it slow — Avoid the “drive-by.” Don’t catch someone 10 minutes before your next meeting. Make sure you give plenty of time for discussion. 30-minutes (even 60-minutes for larger issues) gives lots of time and space for you to share, listen and explore possible solutions. Do your best to complete the conversation without rushing it so that you both feel heard and understood.
- Make it specific — Be very clear on what it is that you’d like to see change. Any ambiguity leaves room for misinterpretations and future disappointments. Have them repeat back what they heard you say to ensure you are on the same page.
- Make it factual — In addition to being specific, be as fact-based as possible. Use specific examples of things they said, emails they wrote, etc. Avoid bringing up your interpretations of the situation. Speak in facts that are based solely in reality.
- Make it all-encompassing — A model I love to use for giving feedback is “What Worked Well” (WWW) and “Even Better If” (EBI). First, share with them “what worked well.” Then share what would be “even better if.” As a bonus, share this model with them in advance so that they know to expect both positive and critical feedback.
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.
Here is my rule: don’t give feedback over email (unless it is extremely simple and clear). If it is about someone’s behaviour, larger issues, or could possibly be subject to any misinterpretations, do whatever you can to get on the phone or a video call. In the worst case, use a service like Loom or Vidyard to send a video message or send a voice note on WhatsApp, Facebook messenger or LinkedIn (yes, LinkedIn has voice notes!).
How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Unfortunately, “harsh” and “critical” are in the eye of the reader. One can use nice long, drawn-out sentences, lots of smiley faces, lots of kind remarks to counter the criticisms… and the other person may still be offended.
If the feedback is simple, like changing copy or moving graphics around, one can transmit that information easily via email. As soon as it leaves that realm into something even slightly more complicated, get on a call, use a voice note, add in some video… anything that adds in more emotional context and removes the possibility of misinterpretation that comes with sending emails.
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?
Give feedback as soon as possible, though make sure to deliver it in private. The longer one waits to deliver feedback, the less impactful it will be and less likely the desired change will come.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
A great boss is someone whose major focus is to lift up their team as much as possible. A great boss empowers their team to be their best and perform their best. They adjust their management style to meet the team’s needs. They are highly communicative, create psychological safety within the group and operate with a high level of integrity.
My last boss is an example of the importance of adjusting one’s leadership style.
He was a great boss for me, but not necessarily for everyone. He was very hands-off, which allowed me to be highly autonomous. This worked really well for me.
I also had a teammate who was highly undependable and problematic. My boss’s hands-off approach fed into my teammate’s complacency, allowing her to continue being difficult to work with and brought very few consequences for her (in)actions. What was missing for me was a tailored leadership style for each team member in order to bring out the best in each one of us.
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. 🙂
Conflict is not something to be scared of. It is a normal and natural part of life. If we spent half as much energy learning how to better manage conflicts as we do avoiding them, the world would be a radically different place.
Taking it upon myself to develop the communication skills needed to handle conflict situations has gone a long way to bring more peace and ease in my life and the lives of others. As a result, I have stronger relationships, less drama, more self-confidence, and am more likely to come up with new, creative solutions in my conflicts than others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” — Winston Churchill
This has been particularly relevant to me lately. I have noticed a deluge of content and media in the last several years. There are more things to do, read and watch in life than ever. As a result, there are more distractions to reaching one’s objectives. So, pick your lane, focus your energy, and go for your goals.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
- Check out the Mindful Communication Podcast — an exploration of the art & science of connection (https://www.mindfulcommunication.me/podcast)
- Access my FREE 4-part video training series on transforming any and all conflicts in your life (https://mindfulcommunication.me/)
- Follow me on LinkedIn for regular doses of communication tips and tricks (https://www.linkedin.com/in/millerdjonathan/)
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.