Quick: Think of a time you’ve failed.
That’s precisely the challenge I posed to about 20 judges at the Northeast Judge Conference earlier this month. My workshop, “Practicing Radical Candor,” was an exploration of our experiences with failure — and how we can grow from them.
I’ll start this article the same way I began my seminar: by explaining what radical candor is.
Radical candor means nothing more than “say what you think.” But this seemingly simple concept is actually quite difficult to put into practice — especially when most of us have been taught “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” This mindset pervades almost every aspect of our lives, from our performance at work, to our friendships, to reviews and feedback in the judge program.
Guidance (or feedback) is really nothing more than praise and criticism. Most of us crave guidance. But, ironically, criticism is often very difficult for us to hear. We put up all sorts of barriers and defensive mechanisms to avoid our self-image being hurt by “negative” feedback.
The philosophy of radical candor asserts that, by providing feedback in the right way, the feedback giver can help lower these barriers — or even stop them from being thrown up in the first place.
Radical candor revolves around the idea that effective guidance consists of two elements: caring personally and challenging directly. Caring personally means being deeply and genuinely invested in the other person’s development — and making sure they know that. Challenging directly requires providing unvarnished, specific, constructive criticism. While these two elements can be effective separately, they are most potent when combined.
Like any skill, delivering radically candid feedback takes practice. The rest of the workshop was focused on exploring and experimenting with radical candor in a structured, supportive steps:
- The participants are randomly split into pairs. One participant is designed as “A” and the other as “B.”
- Within each pair, the participants spend about 5 minutes getting to know each other. I encouraged everyone to go beyond ordinary, surface-level introductions (such as name, city, judge level) and to share deeper, more meaningful stories about themselves (e.g. who’s your hero? What’s your greatest accomplishment?).
- Participant A shares a story about a time that they failed. This could be related to judging, or not. During this period, Participant B should be totally silent — this is an exercise in active listening.
- Participant B delivers radically candid feedback about how Participant A handled the presented scenario. During this period, Participant A should be totally silent. In addition to being an exercise in active listening, this helps Participant A avoid giving into the instinct to be defensive or dismissive.
- Participant A closes the session by telling Participant B, “Thank you for your feedback.”
- Finally, the two participants swap roles and repeat steps 3-5.
I had initially been concerned that five minutes might not be enough to jumpstart the “caring personally” aspect of radical candor, but it actually worked out very well. The workshop was a great success! I was blown away by all the participants’ engagement and enthusiasm.
Even more importantly, I’m confident that this method of delivering feedback was truly effective. At the end of the workshop, I asked each participant to write down, in their own words, their recollection of the feedback that they had received. I then asked everyone to share their notes with their partner, who’d given that feedback to begin with. Finally, I asked the group to raise their hands if the feedback that they had offered was accurately reflected in their partners’ notes.
Everyone’s hand went up.
Special thanks to Riki for inviting me to share this conference session update here on The Feedback Loop. Please join us tomorrow on Bearz Repeating, where Riki will explain what his recent marathon completion has to do with judging.