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Grace in Disagreement: Brené Brown’s Ten Guidelines for Engaged Feedback

In Daring Greatly, social researcher Brené Brown tells a story about an experience she had in graduate school that surprised her. Called to a meeting with a professor, she expected to be intimidated and rebuked. Instead, her teacher was an ally. She pulled up a chair, sat down beside her, and offered Brené Brown adjustments.

This is shaky ground for a lot of us: moments when our work, our ideas, and our actions are open to feedback. It is a place of immense vulnerability. But it’s also the place where we are the most open and receptive. If we’re nurtured, this is how ideas evolve, broken systems detach, and innovation emerges.

And, on the other side, there is someone making a choice to sit beside or against us. That person carries a huge responsibility.

Nearly every day, we are that person, with that responsibility. Whether we are offering notes to a colleague, telling a child it’s bedtime, or extending a contrary opinion when two perspectives are in conflict. Grace in disagreement — saying this could be different and how — is an essential part of the human experience. We evolve through disagreement. Ideas subjected to criticism grow stronger than ideas left unchallenged.

An Indian teacher assists children during their lessons in Ahmedabad. Image by Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images..

It’s not disagreement, but graceful disagreement that makes the world go round. And it is rediscovering that grace that Brené Brown articulates so well in her guidelines for engaged feedback:

I know I am ready to give feedback when:

  • I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you.
  • I’m willing to put the problem in front of us rather than between us (or sliding it toward you).
  • I’m ready to listen ask questions, and accept that I may not fully understand the issue.
  • I want to acknowledge what you do well instead of picking apart your mistakes.
  • I recognize your strengths and how you can use them to address your challenges.
  • I can hold you accountable without shaming or blaming you.
  • I’m willing to own my part.
  • I can genuinely thank you for your efforts rather than criticize you for your failings.
  • I can talk about how resolving these challenges will lead to your growth and opportunity.
  • I can model the vulnerability and openness that I expect to see from you.
A child reads a book helped by his teacher in Bogota. Image by Mauricio Duenas/AFP/Getty Images..

Of course a great many teachers already do this, especially with teachers of young children. The art of guiding and adjusting with compassion is common practice in classrooms around the world.

It’s when we grow older that we sometimes forget that offering and hearing feedback can be a place of mutuality and growth. Disharmony and discomfort can be grounds for transformation once grace and compassion are in the mix. What we need now more than ever is the capacity to both hear and speak honestly together. We need to seek not the hollow shells of half-ideas but the fullness of two thoughts, even when — especially if — they are in conflict. It is these antitheses, as Hegel wrote, that produce the most vibrant synthesis.

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