Since 1977, I have been sending out a newsletter called LEARNINGS. Here is how I began the first issue: 

This newsletter—LEARNINGS—is my way of sharing with you what I am learning. Often I learn something with one client that would have been useful with another client the day before. In order to bridge that gap of time and also to bridge the gap of space that separates me from clients and other friends outside Cleveland, I will share my learnings with you regularly in this newsletter. 

That statement feels amazingly accurate more than 35 years later. The only real change is that I moved from Cleveland to London and then on to the Crook of Devon in Scotland. 

In the earlier newsletters, I shared one or two learnings each time. Then I read a wonderful book by Michael Phillips called The Seven Laws of Money. He describes the Taoist approach to creating Seven Laws about anything.

I like that approach except that instead of announcing Laws, I prefer to share Learnings. I’ve now discovered Seven Learnings about all sorts of things, including Journaling, Love, Retreat, and Diversity. The latest Learnings starts here; the rest are in the Learnings Archive. 


LEARNINGS Number 9: November 1984


While working with a colleague a few weeks ago, I learned from a mistake that I made. I was giving him a lot of what I considered to be ‘positive’ feedback on how he could improve his delivery of a certain concept. He got angry with me and told me to stop. When I told him that he was a powerful trainer and that I had enjoyed working with him, he was then able to listen to my other feedback. 

As I thought about the situation later, I realised that I had not given my colleague the other feedback earlier, because I thought the feedback I was giving him was positive. I began to think that ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ were not useful terms for defining feedback. And so I tried out the terms ‘keep’ and ‘change’. 

Keeping feedback is ‘stay the same’ or ‘keep doing that’ or ‘you are doing fine’. Change feedback is ‘Try it this way’ or ‘I’m confused by that’ or ‘have you tried doing more of that’. 

When I began explaining this idea to my colleague the next next morning, I realised something else. When I am getting feedback, I prefer to hear ‘keep’ feedback rather than ‘change’ feedback. If someone wants me to stay the same and be comfortable with the familiar, I think that is positive; if someone wants me to change and risk facing the new, I think that is negative. 

However, when I am giving feedback, I prefer to give ‘change’ feedback rather than ‘keep’ feedback. If I can share my wisdom and knowledge so that someone learns to be more like me, I think that is positive; if I only tell them to stay the same – and thus miss the opportunity of being as wonderful as they would be after following my advice – then I think that is negative. 

In other words I want people to change while I stay the same. And I even want them to give me regular feedback encouraging me to stay the same while listening to my feedback encouraging them to change. 

I may be exaggerating slightly but since I often teach by exaggerating, it seems quite appropriate for me to learn by exaggerating. 

What this means to me now is that I need to be much more aware of giving feedback of the kind that I like to get. This means giving you ‘keep’ feedback rather than ‘change’ feedback. 

Now there are certain situations in which it is appropriate to give ‘change’ feedback. Sometimes people ask for it and sometimes people even come to a course and want it all week long. The difficulty for people like me who run such courses is remembering not to give unasked-for ‘change’ feedback when I’m not working. 

And yet even when ‘change’ feedback is specifically requested – as by a participant on a training course or by a colleague I am training with – I need to remember that the other person first needs to hear some ‘keep feedback before he or she can hear any ‘change’ feedback. 

Most interesting of all, the most powerful ‘change’ or ‘keep’ feedback does not come from me as the giver of feedback. It comes from the supposed receiver. As I said above, I came up with part of my learning about feedback while explaining the idea to a colleague. At that point he was giving me the most powerful feedback of all. He was listening to me very carefully while I thought out loud. 

LEARNINGS: ‘Change’ and ‘keep’ are more useful than ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ to describe feedback. I am more effective when I give feedback the way I want to receive it. If I am giving ‘change’ feedback, I am more effective when I preface it with ‘keep’ feedback. And I am most effective when I listen carefully so that the other person can hear her or his own feedback.