What is switchtracking and how does it affect feedback?

What is switchtracking and how does it affect feedbackSwitchtracking is a fascinating phenomenon that you may not have heard of, but you almost certainly have experienced. With that in mind, let me paint a picture for you instead of giving a definition.

Susan has begun a feedback conversation with a co-worker, John, and it goes something like this:

Susan: I received your finished report, however, it’s using the old style of formatting and I am frustrated that you didn’t use our new template.

John: So I turned in my report early, to make sure it fit your shortened deadline, and again you can’t help but criticize my work.

Susan: Everyone in the department was issued instructions on using the new report template, I don’t know why you haven’t kept up with the new policy.

John: Each time we work on a project together, there is nothing that I can do right, there is always something wrong with what I do.

Susan: But John, now we have to redo your report to make it compliant and we have more work to do.

John: I worked incredibly hard on this report to get it on time, staying all night to finish it, and there is zero appreciation for what I do.

As you can see, these two people are arguing two separate points back-and-forth, with no resolution in sight. They are switching tracks. Susan is frustrated with John for not paying attention to a particular detail, and John is upset with Susan for what he feels is a lack of appreciation for his hard work on a tight deadline. If you are discussing two separate points, you’ll never be able to get anywhere productive with your discussion.

These types of conversations happen in all parts of our lives: at work, while talking with customer service agents, dealing with contractors, and in our romantic relationships. NPR’s hit podcast Hidden Brain did a recent piece on this phenomena and highlighted just how pervasive it is.

So how do we get out of it? By paying attention to ourselves and to those with whom we are speaking. Awareness of the tendency to switch tracks can allow us to pause a conversation and acknowledge that two different points are being discussed, instead of continually jockeying for dominance. Once this is clarified, then each can be discussed individually, preventing the endless looping nature of these types of two-track discussions. Often, this topic switching occurs in response to critical feedback, so making note of this can help you detect it earlier in conversations where you’re giving feedback.

The other thing to note is that switchtracking can happen in our heads, silently, when we’re receiving feedback. It’s important to be aware of this form of swtichtracking, too, because it effectively prevents us from truly hearing the feedback that someone is giving us. Your boss might be giving you feedback that is critical for your promotion, but if all you’re thinking is, hey, remember that time when you lost a client due to being poorly prepared for a pitch but now you’re telling me how to do my job… then you’re missing out on important information. While your feelings about your boss’s performance may be valid, they’re irrelevant to the steps you may need to take to secure your promotion. By switchtracking in your head you’re missing an opportunity to learn something important.

By learning these idosynchrasices, you can get better at giving and receiving feedback. And for further development, you can check out one of our feedback-focused programs like Interpersonal Feedback Skills.

Doug Ramsay

Doug handles the marketing and web presence for Adventure Associates. If he's not geeking-out with the latest, greatest web marketing tools, then you'll find him swirling and sipping his way through wine country.

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