Three times a year, Hewlett Foundation staff gather for “in-town learning weeks” — rare blocks of time when all staff refrain from travel, staying in town to attend talks and workshops that promote learning and connection across the foundation.  In a recent in-town week, we explored the themes of listening and feedback.

It was inspired, in part, by a 2016 Center for Effective Philanthropy study about the future of philanthropy that found 7 out of 10 foundation CEOs rated “listening to those we seek to help” as one of the most promising ways to increase funder impact. But we also knew that listening and feedback are relevant topics for everyone at the foundation, regardless of role.  Here are a few of the takeaways from the week about how to be better at giving and receiving feedback:

Look below the water line.

Leadership consultant Shoshanna Cogan used an iceberg analogy to remind us how much of each person’s lived experience—hopes and fears, joys and traumas—is invisible to others.    We get into trouble when we make assumptions about the motives of others and allow our feedback to be colored by those assumptions.  Likewise, fears and insecurities “below the water line” may surface during feedback conversations—as anyone who has ever felt defensive in response to well-meaning feedback can attest.

Establish your shared goal.

Concerns about being misunderstood or stoking defensiveness can dissuade colleagues from giving feedback, but we can build skills to make these conversations feel less fraught.  In a workshop led by our Talent Development Officer Helena Geefay, we practiced establishing shared intent at the start of feedback conversations.  Statements like “I know the team’s performance is important to both of us” or “I’d like to help you be more efficient,” ensure that both the provider of feedback and the recipient approach the conversation with positive motives and a shared goal.

Institutions, not just individuals, benefit from feedback.

Organizations, like the people who staff them, need to be intentional about integrating listening and feedback as a regular part of doing business and helping staff to develop those skills.  Over the course of the week, we invited foundation staff to share lessons learned from listening tours, human-centered design projects and other activities.

Funders and grantees benefit from feedback from the people they seek to help…

We explored how nonprofits can use feedback from beneficiaries to improve services.  These conversations reminded us of the powerful insights people have to offer about their own lives—insights that funders and service providers can only gain by asking.  For example, we heard from a panel of staff and participants from the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), an employment training and placement program for men and women recently released from incarceration.  CEO is a grantee of the Fund for Shared Insight, an initiative that provides funding to enable funders and nonprofits to be more meaningfully connected to each other and the people and communities we are seeking to help.

And beneficiaries like giving feedback, especially when it’s used.

One participant in CEO’s program, George Maestaz, told the foundation staff how pleased he was that his feedback led to changes that could benefit others. That feedback – describing the anxiety of not knowing what to expect on his first day of training–inspired CEO to revamp its orientation process and inform participants ahead of time exactly what they should expect.

Those of us who choose to work in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors are well-acquainted with how good it can feel to know we are doing something for others.  It shouldn’t surprise us that beneficiaries would feel the same when an organization uses their feedback to improve a program.  Even so, hearing George describe how it felt to help others after being incarcerated was a powerful reminder.

For me, empathy and recognition of shared goals were the common threads that ran through all of the week’s sessions.  The more we understand each other, the better we can work together.  The better we work together, the better the outcomes.  This is true in one-on-one conversations like the ones we practiced with our teammates, and it’s true when an organization opens the door for feedback and gives beneficiaries the opportunity to help create better solutions.