What Surfing Taught Me About Giving Feedback

While surfing with a friend, I was reminded about the importance of both giving and receiving feedback, and each person’s role in making it work.

Here’s what happened…

I started surfing with a friend and neighbor who had taken up surfing the year before. I’ll call him Laird.

I’ve been surfing for years.

Laird’s first year of surfing was rough, as was my first year — actually my first few years. Surfing is an incredibly complex and demanding sport that requires serious levels of athleticism and the ability to read waves. It is also very physically demanding — especially winter surfing. I’ve found over the years that regardless of how great a shape you might be in on land, once you paddle out, you use muscles and tax your body in ways that land-based workouts don’t prepare you for.

David Lee and surfboardOnly surfing and paddling time can do that.

Laird was committed to learning how to surf, so he devoured surfing videos on YouTube. When we talked, he would share what he was learning.

After we had been out a few times, he said, “I notice you keep both hands on the same side of the board when you’re riding a wave. In one of those videos the guy was saying that a lot of surfers do that and when they do, they can’t maneuver the board (you know, those cool carving and cutting back moves you see great surfers do). The surfer guy said you need to make sure one arm is to the left and the other to the right, and then you’ll be able to move your hips to maneuver the board.”

Think about it. I’ve been surfing for years and this guy is a newbie and he’s giving me recommendations, albeit as a messenger and not a self-appointed expert.

My response?

I was stoked. I was aware that often when I tried to carve, I barely moved the board, despite doing the hip movements that really good surfers do. Maybe this was the reason.

The next wave I caught I consciously kept my arms out the way Laird said they should.

It was a game-changer.

I moved along the face of the wave like the surfers do in the videos. OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but man, did I feel like a surf legend as I carved up and down the wave.

Now, if I had let my ego get in the way and been annoyed that this newbie was giving me feedback and “instructions,” I would never have taken my skill — and enjoyment — to the next level.

Is your ego getting in the way of receiving helpful feedback?

Are there places where you let your ego prevent you from taking in useful feedback? Have you discounted feedback from someone because you’ve been in the field far longer than they, or because they are much younger?

If so, perhaps you are missing out on valuable feedback because, just like me, you have blind spots.

When we’re in the midst of “doing our thing” — whatever that “thing” is — we can’t be aware of every aspect of how we are coming across or how we are executing.

We might be speaking in a certain way, or treating people in a particular way that doesn’t get us the results we want. Because we’re in the midst of doing it, we don’t realize how we are keeping ourselves from getting those results, just like with me and my incorrect arm position.

If we want to grow, we need to be open and discerning

We also have a responsibility to ourselves to vet the feedback; to consider the source. It’s not just about the person getting the feedback, it is also a product of the person giving the feedback. The quality and accuracy of their feedback comes from their knowledge, maturity, wisdom, beliefs, personal issues, past history, and all the other factors that color the way we see other people and the world.

Thus, we need to weigh the feedback we receive. The challenge is to find the right mix of being open and being discerning.

In this case, Laird was basing his feedback on someone else’s expert knowledge, and his observational skills. If he had just given me advice based on his one year of experience, I would have considered it, but would not have given it nearly the credence I did. I also would probably have been a little annoyed at his cheekiness.

That being said, one of the other reasons why I was so open to his feedback was because he said it in a tone of voice and with an earnestness that communicated he wanted to be helpful and was excited to share something he found useful.

That being said, things changed in a future session.

What about when you give feedback?

The next time we went out, he commented on my stance, “You just did a classic poo stance,” a term he learned in one of the surfing videos about an overly wide foot stance that newer surfers inadvertently take because it intuitively makes sense. Whether in martial arts or other disciplines, a low wide stance gives great stability. In surfing, it prevents mobility.

He said it in what to me sounded like a “Gotcha!” tone of voice and in that “busting chops” way that a lot of guys do when hanging out with their buddies, but which I find tedious.

I just looked at him.

He made a couple of other “helpful” recommendations after some other rides. It was starting to get old. I hadn’t signed up for a surf lesson. His ongoing feedback and advice was interfering with the fun factor.

After one of his recommendations, I said, “Hey! I’ve had enough of the critiques. I just want to have fun out here.” I didn’t say it with an angry or annoyed or scolding tone, just low key and matter of fact.

“OK,” Laird replied.

After a minute, he said, “Sorry. I am just so into learning this stuff that I want to share it.”

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“No worries,” I said. “I get that.”

I didn’t feel the need to explain why it was bothersome. That would have felt like overkill, especially given the newness of our friendship. We didn’t have the depth of connection or history of openness as I have with other friends.

Being mindful of how we give feedback

This part of the surfing feedback story illustrates the importance of us practicing mindfulness when giving feedback.

Do our tone of voice or word choice show glee or pride in having discovered a mistake or flaw in the other person?

Does our tone show a sense of superiority; a sense that we are benevolently dispatching wisdom?

Are we giving unsolicited feedback, rather than asking if they would like some feedback?

Are we continually critiquing the other person, so they feel badgered rather than coached?

As you think about experiences you’ve had — giving and receiving feedback where it didn’t go well — reflect on this surfing story to see how you can apply the lessons.

As you give feedback in the future, take these lessons with you.

How to apply this

  1. Make sure you’re coming from a helpful place, not a “gotcha” place.
  2. Reflect on the relationship and ask yourself what level of candor and offering of feedback seems appropriate. For instance, if you are a new supervisor of someone who has twice the experience you do, that invites a different approach than if you have years of experience and are supervising someone who is new on the job.
  3. Ask yourself about your timing. If you give feedback now, will it interfere or help?
  4. Ask, “How would I like to have someone give this feedback to me?”
  5. Unless you are in a manager/direct report conversation where giving feedback is understood to be part of the relationship, ask for permission to give feedback. If we’re not willing to ask permission, if we feel great pressure to give feedback whether they want it or not, that’s a powerful clue our desire to give feedback is more for our benefit rather than theirs.
  6. In situations where you feel it’s appropriate, ask for feedback on your feedback. So for instance, “Hey Jane. I always want to make sure if I give some feedback, that it’s done in a helpful way. Was the way I just said that helpful or not so much?” If they give you vague feedback, ask for specifics. Also, ask for an example of how you could do it better: “What would have been a more helpful approach?”