What does Empathetic Criticism/Feedback Look Like?

Braden Lucca

Braden in the old Coliseum, now converted to apartments and shops — Lucca, Italy

One of the standard misinterpretations surrounding empathetic thinking, or the term in general, is the idea that in a world where empathy is prioritized, everything will always just be OK, and there will be no criticism.  Just acceptance of whatever anyone says.

That’s really wrong.  The idea behind higher connection is greater coherence — meaning that there is deeper understanding of another’s position, but a shared goal toward seeking a larger truth.  Ideally, that would promote positive emotional characteristics, such as kindness.  And I believe that it does.  But that’s really not the point.  “I’m OK, You’re OK” is a kind of relativism that can stagnate organizations, cultures, and societies.

That means there must be modes of criticism that not just promote empathy — but utilize it.  What might that look like?

First off, there needs to be an addressing of the limbic state of the person who is receiving the criticism.  That means the person on the receiving end needs to not be locked down In The Grip — basically a depressed state where any advice or correction is processed in a deeply emotional, egocentric fashion.  The short version is ‘you tell someone they suck, and then they stop listening to you.’  Hello, emotional empathy!

Secondly, there needs to be confirmation that the person receiving the criticism understands on a deeper level the perspective of the person giving the criticism.  Obviously, this requires  a slower, rational empathetic connection.

Finally, both parties need to share the same protocol, and be aware of this.  This influences both people in the immediate scene — solid mirroring behavior.

My good friend and co-researcher, Steve Beyerlein, Chair of the ME department at the University of Idaho, introduced me to the concept of SII feedback — a way of hopefully circumventing The Grip, and increasing the effectiveness of an exchange.  SII stands for Strengths, Improvements and Insights — a procession of information designed to make sure the receiver knows what works, what can change, what is valuable, and some feedback from the deliverer that indicates a deeper understanding of the circumstance that the receiver is in.

I’ve modified this a bit with what I call Empathetic SII.  The idea behind Empathetic SII is that it is actually an algorithm for dialogue between two parties that results in much greater coherence than just a simple active listening.  Active listening as a protocol looks pretty good on the surface.  But because it fundamentally IS a protocol, there is the potential for misuse.  You can repeat stuff back to someone that they just said and never have deeper processing.

That’s much harder with Empathetic SII.  See the figure below:


Empathetic SII works as follows.  The person giving the criticism starts with a Strength, which is fine.  But the receiver then must place-take, and give Insight on why the giver said what they said, and attempt to understand the position of the giver.  This allows establishment of positions in a very clear fashion.  Basic SII attempts primarily to avoid the Grip — which is great.  Empathetic SII, through empowering both parties, establishes a much higher baseline for true coherence.

The sequence followed might be as follows:

  1.  The giver delivers a Strength.  The receiver responds with an Insight on why the giver thinks that is a Strength.
  2. The giver then gives an Improvement.  The receiver then discusses the Improvement and their understanding.
  3. The giver then gives an Insight.  The receiver responds with a Strength of the feedback offered.

Remember — all protocols are only ladders to higher heuristics.  Anything that establishes a foothold in understanding and connection is good.  Empathetic protocols such as Empathetic SII are meant to be modified, as long as the goal of higher connection is maintained.

Takeaway:  keeping people out of emotional lockdown, so they can rationally process the information being given to them is the fundamental point of SII.  Making SII into an empathetic protocol strengthens the connection and coherence of both players, and sets the stage in a positive fashion for future interactions.

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