Lumberjacks, hikers and the value of constructive feedback

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Although most of us would agree that feedback is an important source of learning, we often lack the time and space to truly establish a culture of constructive feedback giving. In the rush of day-to-day life, well intended comments can sometimes be misunderstood or misheard and lead us to become defensive rather than embrace them as an opportunity for recognition and learning.

Recently, I received some feedback on my work, which brought to mind a short story that has helped me to reflect on the feedback I was given and express my gratitude for it. In turn, I have been encouraged to share this story through my blog as a way to inspire others to reflect on how they give and receive feedback.

While a hiker was walking through a forest he saw a lumberjack working hard to cut some trees. When he came closer he noticed the saw the man was using was blunt. The hiker watched the man for a while and then asked the lumberjack why he didn’t sharpen his saw. “Dear man,” replied the lumberjack, “do you not see the forest? These are all the trees I have to cut. I haven’t got time to sharpen my saw”.

​L. Seiwert

This story encourages us to think about what is essential. What is really important to us? The lumberjack could potentially save much more time if he sharpened his saw. However, he doesn’t do it as he does not see it as essential. He is caught up in his work and has lost a wider perspective.

Of course he may not have always worked in this way and it may not be a deliberate intention. However, he has lost sight of what is essential and carries on using a blunt saw again and again. Eventually it becomes habitual, and if the lumberjack ever has to instruct a young colleague I imagine he would probably do it with a blunt saw!

I like this story and often ask myself; “when do I use a blunt saw? Are there things in my life which I think are essential but I still don’t do?” To explore this we need space to reflect, and in doing so it can help us to maintain our enthusiasm and joy, and create more resources and time.

What I find equally important in this thought-provoking story is the hiker who comes along and points this out to the lumberjack. What an interesting conversation could have evolved between the two of them if the lumberjack had not felt the need to justify himself and the hiker had empathised more with the situation he was in!

I think feedback giving and receiving is a great opportunity to expand our knowledge of ourselves and the understanding others have about us. It enhances our learning and well-being.

I experienced this recently during my first appraisal as a social pedagogue on the Head, Heart, Hands programme. I really appreciated the time people took – the hikers in my working world – to share their thoughts and through their considerate and reflective feedback they enabled me to learn and rediscover what is essential in the project.

I shall keep their contributions as a treasure to return to in the tough times that are part of the day-to-day reality of project work. It was an opportunity to pause for a moment and celebrate what we have achieved together and to learn what needs to improve. Central to enabling this to happen was that a suitable space and atmosphere was facilitated; an atmosphere promoting constructive communication, based on the relationships we had developed with each other and the shared values of respect, empathy and openness.

When do we take time to invite “hikers” to share their observations?

How do we give and receive feedback? What are our motivations?

Are we able to give feedback to others so that it becomes a source for learning, reassurance and a treasure for comfort?