How to Give Feedback

presentYou’re generally a nice caring person, right?  But you’ve got a problem…You’re probably not as good at giving brutally honest feedback as you could be. And you’re probably not all that good at receiving feedback either. (Sorry to break the news…)

Lets face it, giving feedback makes most people uncomfortable–on both sides of the table.  Most of us don’t want to hurt others’ feelings or make others feel uncomfortable.

Because emotions are contagious, the anticipated discomfort in the receiver makes the giver uncomfortable before he or she even says a word. We know how much the “brutal honesty” might hurt.  We all feel it in the pits of our stomachs before the big delivery.  We’re likely to procrastinate giving it too.  And soon enough, the timing is no longer great; the dust has settled; we’ve rationalized how big of a deal it was anyway.  “Pick your battles” we’ve told ourselves.  Unfortunately, we’ve missed the golden opportunity to improve somebody.  It’s like allowing somebody to continue their day with broccoli stuck between their teeth.  We have an obligation to say something!

Why is it so hard to give feedback?  Because it can go horribly wrong!  People are likely to get defensive!  So we do have good reason to be a little afraid.  It’s true that it’s much easier for a feedback meeting to go horribly wrong than amazingly right.

But we’ve got to confront our discomfort, and give it.  We can’t let the broccoli stay stuck between their teeth.

So what are some tips and strategies that increase the odds of success?

Here are my top 9.1 tips.

Tip #1: Have a Gift-giving Attitude

Before you work yourself up into a cold anticipatory sweat, remember that what you are doing is a gift.  You are intending to help someone get better.  If you’re not intending to do that, watch out.  If you are using “feedback” to get somebody to stop being annoying to YOU, you’re being self-centered.  A punishment mindset will set you up for an offensive-defensive dialogue where both parties walk away feeling attacked.

So for this tip, basically make sure you are keeping the receiver’s best interests at heart. Remember that feedback is a gift.

Tip #2: Use The Platinum Rule

Surely you’ve heard of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. But that’s a bit self-centered, isn’t it? Most people are different than you.

The Platinum Rule is: Treat others as they would like to be treated.

Don’t think as much about “How would I like to receive feedback.” Rather, think “How would they like to receive feedback?”

Tip #3: Be Brutally Honest

This tip is about candor, honesty and authenticity.  Don’t gloss over the details or minimize the feedback to make someone feel better.

The goal is to be brutally honest, without being brutal.  You’ve got to care about getting the facts right, and care less about how they react to the facts.

Tip #4: Ask for Permission

Even people who don’t need to give you permission for feedback should be asked, out of courtesy.  It shows you care that you’re giving it, and it shows you care by getting them ready.  You don’t want to blindside somebody.  Also, by asking them questions like, “Gotta minute? If you’re interested, I have a little bit of feedback for you related to the meeting”, you’re framing the feedback as feedback.  You’re labeling it, so they can interpret it as feedback rather than frustration, blame, etc.

Tip #5: Practice Positive Feedback First

Most of us assume that feedback is negative.  We live in a fault-finding world, after all.  And positive feedback is often not labeled as such.  It’s seen as a compliment.  You can use the same feedback approach outlined here to give positive feedback that reinforces the good stuff somebody is doing.  And yes, still ask for permission!  It will amplify the good feedback.

Before you start giving someone corrective feedback, it will help if you’ve been giving them positive feedback recently.  That way, they can receive your feedback as a sign of caring.

Tip #6: Recall the Situation

After asking them if they’re open to some feedback, and they say yes, describe the time and place where a particular behavior occurred.  If you don’t take them back to a time and place, they might not get what you’re talking about.  For example, you could say “Remember yesterday when the meeting ended and Richard came up with you to and asked about the financial data?”  The specific and factual information about the situation will be very helpful to the receiver in their understanding of your feedback.

Tip #7: Describe Observable Behavior

Don’t speak about themes, patterns, trends, and other abstract concepts.  For example, don’t say, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been frustrated this year about where the company is headed.”  That’s not feedback.  It’s your judgment about what’s really going on, from your perspective.  If you’re not seeing things the same way, the conversation is likely to end up being about something else rather than feedback.

Describe what you saw the person do, objectively.  For example, you could say “After Richard asked his question, you shook your head, took several seconds to respond, and stared at the floor.  You left without saying anything to anybody.”

Tip #8: Show the Impact

There’s often a wide gap between intent and outcome.  What we try to do, and what actually occurs, are not in sync.  Most of us have good intentions.  But at some level, the intent doesn’t matter if the outcome is very different.  One of the most powerful aspects of feedback is helping people see that their impact is not what they intended.  If someone is trying to be inspiring, but in reality their behavior is demotivating, it doesn’t matter much what the intent was.

When you show the feedback receiver their impact, they might be shocked.  They might say, “Wow! That’s not at all what I was trying to do!”

The impact part of the feedback can be subjective (how you felt) or objective (what was clearly observed and factual).

For example, the subjective feedback could be “You made me feel like you didn’t give a crap about me or my efforts leading up to the meeting.”

An example of objective feedback is “Several people rolled their eyes, shook their heads, and walked out of the room in silence.”

Tip #9: Consider Suggestions

Depending on how able the receiver is to absorb and process the feedback, you may not be able to move into recommendations or suggestions.  If they’re not receptive, or get defensive, suggest a follow up meeting.  If they truly want to understand the feedback, and what they could do differently to be more effective, have an example or two of behaviors they could consider.

For example, you could say “You might consider shaking hands with a couple of people after the meeting, or saying something optimistic about where we’re headed.”

Tip #9.1: Circle Back

Days later, circle back with the person.  They may have been defensive when you first talked.  They might have experienced your feedback as brutal–rather than brutally honest.  Or, they might have thought about it and grown to appreciate the risk you took in giving them the gift of feedback.  Over time, they should come to appreciate the feedback-rich culture you’ve been creating.

And obviously…ask them for some feedback.  The more receptive you are to feedback the better.  Nothing is worse than someone who can dish it out but can’t take it!



About Curt Buermeyer

I am the founder and president of LeadPeople. I hope you enjoyed this post and encourage you to subscribe to receive these in your inbox. Thanks for visiting!

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