What I learned about giving feedback from having toilet paper on my shoe.
Would you let a perfect stranger walk down the street with toilet paper on her shoe?
My most memorable TP moment was at a dance club of all places. I heard ‘my song’ come on and dashed out of the bathroom before checking my shoes (which I do now all the time, by the way!). Soon after, a very sweet man danced his way over to me and whispered in my ear, not “Would you like to dance?” as I hoped he might, but “You have toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your right shoe.”
I know I have “chased” people several feet to alert them they have TP stuck to the bottom of their shoe, or “worse” tucked into the back of their pants. Nine out of ten times people thank me profusely for telling them. On a rare occasion, someone nonchalantly scuffs it off and keeps on going, embarrassed to have been seen less put together than how she may have wanted. Some make a joke before thanking me; others want to share the story of the last time this happened to him. And others say, “Why didn’t that other person who was in there with me tell me?!”
I’ve come back to this image over the years when confronted with the opportunity to give someone feedback. On many occasions, I shied away because I didn’t want to offend someone, because my feedback wasn’t solicited, because I’d had a negative experience giving feedback to that person in the past and numerous other reasons. And then I thought… well, if I wouldn’t let a perfect stranger walk down the street with TP on her shoe, why would I let a colleague, let alone a good friend do it? Of course, you might be that person who takes a photo of that person and posts it with a snarky note on IG, but I doubt it. In this case, TP becomes “code” for pointing out something that maybe uncomfortable or awkward.
For example, if you are with a colleague who is preparing a meeting and you can clearly see where the gap, deficits, missteps are, and that if she proceeds as planned the meeting will fall flat on her face, find a way to point it out. If during a meeting your colleague was engrossed in facilitating the discussion and he missed that one person totally checked out after your colleague said something that might have been perceived as homophobic, take time to pull your colleague aside later and share what you saw. What I love about the TP analogy is that it’s concrete. There’s evidence. You. Have. Toilet paper. On. Your. Shoe. It’s not a commentary on what I think of you for walking out with TP on your shoe (distracted, lazy, self-absorbed, rushing, etc.), so in the same way when giving feedback, utilize concrete evidence whenever possible.
You are welcome to use this analogy- maybe it even becomes code in your workplace or with your friends: "Hey Rebecca, can I let you know you’ve got TP on your shoe?” Or maybe your code is: “Bob, great job on some early parts of the meeting, and can I let you know that you’ve got some broccoli stuck in your teeth?” Or “Andrea, when you have a few minutes, I wanted to tell you that you left that meeting with your zipper down?” And then at least people can choose if they want to keep walking or if they want to hold on to your shoulder while they lean down to tear that pesky TP off the bottom of their shoe.