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Season 2

Ep 7: How to Have Very Uncomfortable Conversations

With Joe Hirsch & Jeff D'Silva

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There are so many uncomfortable conversations to be had, or avoided, depending on the day. But uncomfortable doesn’t have to be bad, it just means it isn’t easy.

In this episode, we dive into the notorious "F word" – Feedback! Without it, we might run around convinced we're flawless employees with perpetually minty-fresh breath, blissfully ignorant of any missteps we’ve taken. But a world without feedback would also mean a world without improvement. Our guest, Joe Hirsch gives us his expert 2 cents on how to take a different approach to this dreaded process. And, Comedian Jeff D’Silva shares how he spins uncomfortable content into comedic gold.

Join host, Lottie Bazely, as we explore how to get the most out of uncomfortable situations and maybe even make them a little easier and a lot more fruitful.


Joe Hirsch: For too long, feedback has been weaponized to be a blunt instrument and to force people to be more like you, to do the things that you want them to do. And while that can have some short-term changes, it doesn't have long-term improvements.

Lottie Bazley: You are listening to Infernal Communication brought to you by Staffbase, and I'm your host, Lottie Bazley.

Telling someone their fly is down, addressing that smell in the office you're pretty sure is coming from your co-host Brian, and talking about job performance, uncomfortable conversations. They are the worst. And yet we have all been there. Sweaty palms, anxiety, worry, and that's just on our end. Often what's worse than how we feel during these cringey conversations is worrying about how the other person is going to feel. But what are our options?

Glossing over hard topics doesn't make them go away. Someone is inevitably going to have spinach in their teeth just as they're about to go into that big meeting. That form your colleague continuously fills out wrong, isn't going to fix itself, and you can't let the barista at your local coffee shop call you the wrong name forever.

Barista: Latte for Loottie Boozley.

Lottie Bazley: Or you can, but do you want to be that person? Actually, it's Lottie Bazley.

Wouldn't it be better to help others look their best during a meeting? A little feedback on how to get that form filled out could set your colleague on a whole new career trajectory. One difficult conversation can make a huge difference. So let's figure out how to do it right. In this episode let's learn how to be on the giving and receiving end of some uncomfortable news. We are going to hear from Joe Hirsch. He is an author and an expert on what can be a very uncomfortable conversation, giving and receiving feedback. But first, Jeff De Silva.

Jeff D'Silva: I am a, I guess a comedian first, a writer, a satirist I guess in a way, a general troublemaker on the internet, and most importantly, a father and husband. And I'm based out of Calgary, Alberta Canada.

Lottie Bazley: Jeff's brand of comedy isn't shocking or offensive by most standards. To give you an example, he says his claim to fame was posting a photo of himself eating McDonald's pizza at the fast food outlet near his house. Something to know, McDonald's pizza hasn't been available in Canada for years.

Jeff D'Silva: I just kind of lightly posted it on Instagram or Facebook and people traveled from out of town to obtain this McDonald's pizza and it was going around Alberta that McDonald's pizza was available again, and people got kind of mad. I think faking McDonald's pizza was my masterpiece of a moment.

Lottie Bazley: See? Pretty tame. But he's still a comedian and what's funnier and more uncomfortable than real life, the things that make us human, the tough stuff to talk about? It's Jeff's job to get into it, and he does, but that doesn't mean it's a comfortable conversation.

Jeff D'Silva: I had taken a break from performing and I had just started doing shows again, and part of it is that I'm trying to get back into the flow of writing jokes and all of that stuff. So I'd written a number of jokes just about, I don't know how to describe it, but I was a hairy baby.

So I'd written a number of jokes about being a hairy baby I guess. And I was doing an open mic or something and I stepped outside and right before the show, a family friend who had known me since I was a baby, whose family knows my mom and my parents and all of that stuff, she's like...

Family friend: Hey, Jeff, long time, no see. I saw you were on the bill so I thought I'd come down. How's your mom?

Jeff D'Silva: I hadn't seen this person for years. And I was like, cool, that's very cool and I immediately think, “Oh my gosh.” My set has, they're not lewd jokes, but the hairy baby jokes, they do tend towards the more risqué towards the end of it. So I did the joke and then afterwards I was just trying to duck out and head home and this family friend walks up to me and she's like, “Oh my god!”

Family friend: Oh my God, I can't wait to tell my dad and your uncle.

Jeff D'Silva: All about the joke-

Family friend: You made about your mom's...

Jeff D'Silva: And I was like, “Oh, okay, cool. That's new stuff. I'm just testing it out.” And I kind of just, fingers crossed, hope she forgot about it. A lot of those instances happened.

Lottie Bazley: Awkward! But Jeff powered through. He didn't change his material because it was going to get a little weird. He stuck to it. He stayed true to himself and what he has to say.

Jeff D'Silva: I've gotten to the point now I guess in my life, where so many kind of mischievous things have happened online or whatever it is that I'm just like, “I'm just going to do it with the understanding that if my mum found out the joke that I said, which I won't repeat here, that she will understand that it's in the name of comedy or it's in the name of trying to advance myself.”

Lottie Bazley: And while neither of his parents are on the sidelines loudly cheering him on, they're still some of his biggest fans, even if they come across as a little reluctant sometimes.

Jeff D'Silva: They're always like, “Oh, be careful.” They always worry. But I think that because I've had our former mayor share things of mine and different journalists and things like that, that they've now realized that it's an inroad to networking or they realize that I'm always doing things with trying to make a better place for my kids in my mind. They try and play like they're not watching because I think they think that if they knew that I knew that they were watching, that I would censor myself or change something about it. They won't like anything. It's only if it becomes the McDonald's pizza thing or if it ends up on TV or something like that, they'll be secretly proud.

Lottie Bazley: So even if Jeff's mum, God forbid, ever hears about the hairy baby joke, it won't be too big of a deal because of their mutual love and respect. Having an established relationship makes every hard conversation easier. But when Jeff gets up in front of a crowd to bare his soul using the art of comedy, he often doesn't know these people and if all goes well, the audience is mostly made up of complete strangers. That changes things.

Jeff D'Silva: So I used to do improv comedy, and it's different from stand-up in the sense that it's a slightly different art form because they drill into you don't try to be clever, try to be yourself and be very, very comfortable with failing, which I think has helped me, has lifted me to whatever lofty heights I've aspired to so far.

When I was really young, I used to just stare into the light, not like the figurative light, like I'm going to die, but I used to stare into the light so I wouldn't have to see an audience member's space or whatever it is. But I think that over the years and as I've gotten older and stuff, I've become more comfortable with the idea that I am pretty much who I am, both online and offline in terms of how I present myself, and I'm pretty authentic to my brand, per se. So I usually try and think that if someone is there and they're going to see me, it's pretty much a close reflection of who I am and if they don't like that, then they can take it elsewhere, I guess, in the nicest way possible.

Lottie Bazley: Be yourself, whether it's an audience, a friend or a colleague, we can all sense authenticity. There's few things worse than having a difficult conversation, especially when you feel you're being patronized. Jeff has to get up in front of an audience and say some uncomfortable things, but he signed up for it.

What about the conversations we aren't so keen to have, like the dreaded F-word? ... feedback. It's hard to give and it's hard to receive, but no one walks into any job or situation knowing how to do everything perfectly. We need feedback to improve. So often it is a miserable experience, but it doesn't have to be. This is where Joe Hirsch comes in. Now he's an author and expert on feedback, but he used to be a fourth-grade teacher, where he received a lot of feedback poorly.

Joe Hirsch: There came a point in time where I got some feedback that actually kind of blindsided me, and it made me aware of a problem that I guess I'd been simmering for quite a while, but because I had been so feedback averse, I had completely shut my mind and eyes to hearing anything about it or wanting to learn anything more about it.

Lottie Bazley: It got so bad, Joe nearly lost his job.

Joe Hirsch: There was this huge disconnect between the way I saw myself and the way that others saw me. And you could read it in people's body language. There's always a sense of discomfort when you're around them, or maybe you're saying something and the mood in the room changes a little bit and you're not quite sure what it is, but you know there's something there and you just dismiss it or chalk it up to something else. But at a certain point that fear becomes actual pain. The pain of relationships that no longer function the way that they used to or feel the way they used to, the strain that you feel in your work and ultimately, blame that you assign to yourself or to others when trying to figure out why things aren't the way they're supposed to be.

Lottie Bazley: If you've ever been here, it is a horrible feeling. You know, aren't hitting the mark, but you can't quite figure out where you're going wrong. And either no one will tell you or you just can't quite manage to hear it. Everything changed for Joe, when a colleague approached with kindness and asked...

Joe Hirsch: Joe, who do you want to be? A simple question, because the person that I wanted to be or that I wanted others to think I was, was not the person that they saw me as. And that simple question was almost like holding the mirror up to me. And in holding the mirror to me, this individual rather than force a change, sparked an insight. He enlarged my view of the situation and of myself, and rather than tell me what to see, he showed me where to look. And that change in orientation from telling and selling to listening and learning, that made all the difference to me. And it was only at that point when I realized that feedback doesn't have to be something that we fear, but something that we actually look forward to that doesn't have to spark that fear, but spark the joy in these everyday conversations and interactions. That's the moment when I started to realize that feedback could actually be an accelerant for my personal development and not something that I should be running from.

Lottie Bazley: We run from it because asking for other people's real opinions of us is scary, very, very scary because the next step will be honesty. Ugh! Vulnerability. But that's what it takes. We can't expect to get better when we don't know what we're doing wrong.

Joe Hirsch: So once I started to do some difficult work of reflection, it became clear to me that there were probably two or three different areas that were probably pain points for me, in terms of the misalignment of how I saw myself and how others saw me. And then I did a lot of asking, right, asking people for that feedback and saying, “Hey, I have a feeling that this is a problem for me, or I've even been told that this is a problem for me. What do you see? Or what would you say?” And really just asking people fearlessly for their quick takes on what I could do a little bit differently eventually became the basis of the book, which is all about feed forward, not feedback. How do we move forward with a sense of purpose and a sense of confidence in the way that we seek and receive those difficult truths about ourselves so that feedback doesn't have to actually be so fearful.

Lottie Bazley: The book is called “The Feedback Fix: Dump the Past, Embrace the Future, and Lead the Way to Change.” One of Joe's basic tenets is if we want to get feedback we like, we have to start liking the feedback we get. And this is especially true of the feedback that is hardest to hear.

Joe Hirsch: When negative feedback comes in start by getting curious. Ask questions of the other person, Well, are you seeing this often or where else is this coming up or have other people mentioned this to you so that you can just get a little more perspective. So rather than attacking the person who gave it to you, try to get curious about the issue that is under focus.

It's actually, I think, very helpful to get curious with yourself and start to ask yourself some questions about, well, what have I done recently or what haven't I done recently that might cause another person to think or say this? And so that curiosity is a really important piece, both asking another and really asking difficult questions of yourself. But once you get curious, I think it's important to get constructive and to actually start to do something with that feedback. And if you're careful about this, there can actually be tremendous payoff.

If you go to people outside your immediate circle and you ask them for their perspective, you widen that feedback circle and get additional perspectives that you might be missing just because you're too close to the problem. And so by getting an outsider's perspective on this, someone just told me this about myself, are you seeing this or have you seen this or does this happen when we're together, can be very valuable because it allows you to gain additional insights and layers to contextualize that feedback.

And then the last part is to be contrite. If an apology is called for offer one. If it requires you to do some hard work of repairing relationships, do that because ultimately a person who is curious and constructive and contrite is going to continue to receive feedback that allows them to improve.

If we want to continue to keep those communication lines open with other people so that they're feeding us important things about ourselves so that we can actually improve and be better, then we really have to be careful about what we do when those communications come in. Because if people see that we're feedback averse, then we won't get the feedback that we actually need and deserve.

Lottie Bazley: If we want feedback that allows us to get better, we have to demonstrate to others that we are ready, willing, and able to receive it.

Joe Hirsch: And we may not like the message that we're receiving, but honestly, feedback is a lot like gas. There's always a cost, but you're not going to go very far without it. So the price of getting negative feedback can sometimes feel high, but ultimately the value is so much more beneficial to the individual who gets that feedback and can actually do something with it.

Lottie Bazley: That's pretty compelling. We get the feedback we deserve and we need good quality feedback if we're going to get anywhere. Putting away our egos is a vital step in receiving important information in difficult situations. But what about giving feedback? And I warn you, it's going to involve digging a little deeper than “good job”.

Joe Hirsch: For too long feedback has been weaponized to be a blunt instrument and to force people to be more like you, to do the things that you want them to do. And while that can have some short-term changes, it doesn't have long-term improvements because at the end of the day, if the change doesn't come from within the person, then it's going to be short-lived and probably not measure up to your expectations or their aspirations. Our message to spark joy and not fear, then the message has to be candid and it has to be caring. And way too often we put our comfort before our caring. We want to make sure that we feel good and not that others feel upset and that while well-intentioned, is ultimately not a great approach.

Lottie Bazley: Are you familiar with the praise sandwich, aka the shit sandwich? It's a well-used way to deliver bad or uncomfortable news. The thinking is that wrapping the tough talk in praise or positive words makes the sandwich or news more palatable. But of course, the thing to remember is that even if it's served on artisanal sourdough, it's still a shit sandwich.

Barista: Order up! Shit sandwich for Loottie Boozley!

Lottie Bazley: Okay, we've been over this, it's Lottie Bazley. Now, Joe has developed a new lunch food to use as a metaphor for feedback. Bear with me, he has developed a feedback wrap. No, no, no, no, no. I mean wrap, W-R-A-P. Let's start with the W. What and where.

Joe Hirsch: What's happening and where it's happening. Give the feedback a destination, give it a name so that individuals understand exactly what the focus of this conversation is all about. So if I were to be talking to someone on my team who I've noticed has a bit of an over-talking issue when it comes to meetings, I might say to that individual, John, I wanted to talk to you about what happened in yesterday's meeting when you tried to make a point and then Karen interjected, and then you continued to talk over her. So we're talking about yesterday's meeting, we're talking about that interaction with Karen. We're not talking about anything else, not sales numbers, not your breath, not your Zoom etiquette, nothing but that issue.

From there, you go to the reason, the reason for why you want to have this conversation. And the reason to give the reason is not only to give people a sense of certainty, which we all crave, or to even instill a greater sense of self-awareness, which most of us lack, but primarily to deliver a sense of caring. I'm sharing this because I care. And when people understand that the reason you're giving feedback is because you care about them, their development, their relationship with others on the team, that feedback carries a different tone and a different tune.

From there, you move to affect where we focus on the impact this has on others. Not blame and shame, but extending the frame so that people can see exactly what is happening as a result of this. And here we make an important shift from blame to contribution. The statement that I make is directed at me and my own feelings because at the end of the day, people can argue with how we present things, what we say, but they can't argue with how we feel. So shift from you to I and that's a huge shift in terms of the dynamic.

And then finally, the last part of the wrap, the P, the prompt, is the most powerful of all. And that's where instead of you telling John what to do next, you ask for his input on where to go from here, what's your take? And so often feedback stops at that point. We stop just short of asking the other person of what they might do and how they might want to proceed, and that's missing from many of these conversations. But by prompting the person for their next move, we give them more voice and more choice in what happens next and in doing that, we actually shift feedback from something that we do to other people to an act of service that we do for others.

Lottie Bazley: Joe says the secret isn't what we say, it's what others hear. Like a joke, it's all in the delivery.

Joe Hirsch: So something that all feedback givers should be aware of is their feedback face because feedback tells a story, but it's not always the story that we want to share. Some really interesting research on the power of nonverbal communications and feedback shows that when individuals gave negative feedback with a positive facial affect, so a smile or a grin, it actually made the message go from bad to better in the ears of the person who received it. And the opposite was also true. Putting sort of a negative face on positive feedback made the message worse to people. So that was very interesting.

But the really surprising part of that research is that when people put a negative face on what was otherwise positive feedback, it made the sting of that message last longer and hit harder than just simply stating the exact same words with no facial affect whatsoever. Because what we show really does matter more than what we say.

The other thing I think that's important for feedback givers to be aware of is how your job is not to fix people. It's to help frame issues and ultimately, to give people the insights they need to be able to fix things for themselves because we're at our most powerful when we empower others to take charge of their own learning journey and their own feedback process.

So don't tell and sell. Don't tell them what you think or sell them on your version of events. Listen and learn. Try to be that person, just like that person who for me changed my whole mindset and orientation around feedback, who simply holds the mirror and allows you to see the picture more clearly for yourself and give people that other perspective and you'll be surprised by what they discover.

Lottie Bazley: Give a reason as to why you're bringing this up. Talk about the way you and others were impacted. Then finish by prompting some suggestions from the feedback receiver as to what to do. Clarity and compassion go a long way. Feedback is a relationship, not a report. Don't save it for once a year, normalize it, especially within remote workplaces. Maintaining relationships is the key to making hard conversations easier for both parties. And never forget the world is a changing place. The younger generation has a different relationship to feedback and it would be smart to get on board.

Joe Hirsch: By younger I mean those who are probably 25-30, just sort of entering the workforce or just newly entered the workforce. And this is something that the research has really confirmed and that I've seen with different organizations firsthand, is that younger workers want feedback to be more contextualized. They want it to include coaching, they want connection. They want it to happen more of the time, not less of the time. And ultimately, they'd like it to go both ways. They want to be able to share feedback with their managers in addition to receiving it.

Lottie Bazley: So let's say we're ready to get better. We've put aside our egos and are primed to have these difficult and illuminating conversations. But what happens if our managers aren't there yet? For example, I once did a training session. Afterwards, my manager gave feedback that consisted exclusively of a tally of the number of times I had said um and that was it. That was the only feedback.

Joe Hirsch: Seek it elsewhere. Talk to colleagues, maybe talk to former managers who you know and have a good relationship with, and ask them to provide the missing gaps in that picture of performance that you're trying to piece together. So for our own sake, treat feedback like exercise. It may mean getting up on that treadmill or lifting those weights, which don't feel real great in the moment but ultimately, the things that are best for us usually start off feeling like a drag and are uncomfortable. And I would argue that unless we're uncomfortable, we're probably not growing. And so that feedback that we receive, though it may make us feel a little uncomfortable at first, ultimately is going to transform us into the very best people that we were always meant to be.

Lottie Bazley: Talking about uncomfortable things and putting ourselves in uncomfortable positions is so awful, it's tempting to bypass the whole process. But we need to stay true to ourselves, which might mean saying hard things, and that's okay. I may love watching the Real Housewives of Wherever. I can handle the drama, but I am very happy thank you, to keep it on my screens and not in my life. But as today's guests have demonstrated, real talk doesn't have to lead to explosive conversations. It can be inspiring, fulfilling, and even enriching. But we need to put in work by remaining open-minded and making these conversations a regular part of our life.

I want to thank today's guests, Joe Hirsch, author and feedback expert, as well as comedian Jeff De Silva. I'm Lottie Bazley and this is Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase, with production support from Jar Audio. Join us next time when we explore, oh, what's it again? I just had it a second ago. Memory.

Francis Blondin: The first 1,000 digits of pi. I placed them in a huge house and it start in one bedroom. There's Gandhi and he's shaving his legs. And that's 14159, and then it's 26535.

Lottie Bazley: If you enjoyed this episode, please pass it on. Tell your barista, the one who gets your name right, tell um your um old manager and Jeff De Silva's parents. You can also follow us on your favorite podcast app and leave a review. We'd love to know what you think.

Catch you on the flip side!

Barista: Loottie Boozley! Latte for Loottie Boozley! That's Boozley with a Q!

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