Updated: Dec 27, 2020
I hate feedback. I have received poorly-delivered feedback that has left me with many a feedback scar. I tend to show physical symptoms of stress when having to deliver difficult feedback. As a recovering avoider, feedback is now a passion project. This blog is part of a long-term mission to eliminate the fear and stigma around feedback for myself and others.
Let's start with types of feedback.
Some feedback is easy to give. It may look like tweaks to a slide deck or design project. This common, every-day feedback is called task feedback.
Then there's feedback on our performance, or ability to meet deadlines and collaborate with others. This type of feedback is usually given from a manager to a direct report.
Then there's feedback we resist.
We sit on a problem we are having with another person for days, weeks, months and sometimes years. We come up with every excuse not to address the issue. Overtime, we may begin to see the other person as a villain or maybe even leave our jobs to avoid them. These are signs of relational feedback avoidance.
There are simple tools for offering feedback in a clear and constructive way that make the words easier to say and hear.
Don't Be a Victim of Bad Feedback
When did you receive unhelpful feedback? What made it not helpful?
We all have feedback scars. Maybe a manager told you that you needed to improve your communication skills or be more flexible. Perhaps you received some feedback on your performance so long after the event that you couldn't do anything about it. Perhaps your manager had been collecting negative feedback on you and dropped a bomb during your annual performance review that left you shell-shocked.
All of these are examples of feedback fails.
Most are not trained in the art of feedback. If you have been a victim of unhelpful feedback, you are not alone. Unhelpful feedback can leave us feeling helpless and unsure of how to make real changes.
Do not waste another minute feeling bad about yourself. Get yourself the constructive feedback you deserve.
Ask for Regular Feedback
Set the expectation that you expect to receive feedback regularly from your managers and peers. If you are in a leadership role, you will need to ask, ask and ask again for feedback. Power dynamics and traditional working models associate giving leaders feedback with fear of repercussion. As a leader, you must make it clear to others that you value their feedback and keep asking.
Improving communication or flexibility are two of the least helpful comments. They are too vague and general. They can mean different things to different people. They may also be used as an excuse for a leadership or managerial deficiency.
Demand specific feedback on the work, task or behavior that is in question. If you do not receive the specific examples, say thank you and you would like to receive immediate feedback the next time it happens, so that you have more data to act on.
Receive Feedback Like a Champ
No one likes being told they can do better, but the worst thing to do in the face of feedback is to become defensive. We become defensive for a number of reasons.
Perhaps it wasn't the right time to receive the feedback. Perhaps the way it was delivered was sub-optimal. Perhaps you do not agree with the feedback. And... none of these things matter. The only thing that will be remembered by the person delivering the feedback is your reaction.
Getting your reactions under control takes time and practice. You have to learn what works for you.
Timing is Everything
Think of the last time you received feedback. What worked and what didn't? What frame of mind were you in? What frame of mind would you like to be in? If you are not ready to receive feedback, voice it. Request a meeting where you can center yourself and prepare.
Before receiving feedback, take a walk or do something for yourself that helps you get present. Breathing exercises like "4-0-6-3" work great. Close your email and remove distractions. Show the person offering you feedback that what they have to say is the most important thing in that moment.
When you feel the urge to interrupt, don't. Be still. Keep breathing and listen. Use visual cues such as eye contact or a head nod to show that you are listening. Take notes. Particularly if you are feeling anxious or defensive, writing down what you hear will help you stay focused. Take notes on questions you want to ask, but don't ask them yet. Circle areas you want to come back to, but don't jump in. You will know when it's time, because the other person will have stopped talking, and until they do, listen.
Ask Clarifying Questions
Words have different meanings to different people. Don't leave this session until you feel clear. Use the techniques from this blog on listening to help you. I recommend paraphrasing one of the comments and asking for clarification.
Here are some practice phrases and questions:
I heard you say [replay comment]. What did you mean by that?
Is there anything else you can say about [replay comment]?
Can you think of an example when [replay comment] happened?
What is working that you want me to keep doing?
Say Thank You and Offer a Next Step
The quickest way to create a safe space for feedback is to show that it is welcomed. Always say thank you. This does not mean that you agree. Saying thank you shows respect and professional courtesy. It also models how you would like the other person to receive feedback when you have some for them.
To give this session closure, offer a follow-up next step. If a clear next step isn't coming to mind, offer to do some reflecting and provide thoughts in a day or two. You might even request a check-in meeting in a couple of weeks, giving you some time to process. This offer is not a guarantee of change; it is a way to give this session closure, so that you can consider the feedback when there is less pressure.
Integrate What is Helpful and Leave the Rest
Feedback often says more about the giver than the receiver. This means that you need to do some feedback fat trimming. Determine what is valuable and what isn't. You might need to adjust some of the language in order to make the feedback useful for you.
If receiving this feedback was challenge for you, take a break. There is no need to respond right away. Stepping back and gaining some distance may offer you some perspective on the feedback. You might want to talk with a trusted colleague or friend about the feedback to get some additional thoughts. There may be some feedback that you choose to leave behind, and that is okay.
Make a list of something you will do differently. Be accountable for the feedback that you are going to actualize. Be specific and create an action plan. A common framework for changing a habit is the mantra, "Instead of... I will."
For example: Instead of "getting defensive," I will pause, listen, and ask clarifying questions. I will check in with my progress by journaling each week on what worked and what didn't.
Remember, feedback does not change who you are as a person. We can't really change who we are, but we can use a different behavior when it will help achieve a task or improve a working relationship.
Now that you're ready to receive feedback, let's talk about giving feedback. When it comes to giving feedback on a task, the tool my partners and I use most is, "I like... I wish... What if..." from Interaction Design.
Give the positive feedback first, so that they keep doing those things. Give improvement feedback in the form of an "I wish" as opposed to "this didn't work." Leading practices in positive psychology and Appreciative Intelligence tell us that framing feedback as an opportunity or "wish" creates room for growth rather than denial.
The final question, "what if," leaves space for creativity. You might have an idea for the person that could help fix or further the challenged area.
For example, I like the title font and the color scheme. I wish that you had used consistent-looking icons. What if you had numbers and arrows to help guide the viewer through this graphic?
This kind of feedback can be delivered during meetings or in emails. Because there is little risk to the relationship, this technique is generally well-received.
Performance feedback should be offered regularly and as close to the event as possible. Giving performance feedback is about being direct and kind. Yes, this is possible.
William Morrow in The New One Minute Manager offers a simple process for giving performance feedback. Unlike task feedback, performance feedback starts with what didn't work for two reasons. First, positive feedback feels inauthentic when followed by the word "but." And we remember most what we heard last. Empowered employees need to hear the positive feedback when it will be the most powerful.
Before offering feedback, ask permission. It's a simple step but one that will help prepare the receiver to get into receive mode. This also gives them the opportunity to request the feedback at another time.
May I give you some feedback?
SBI Feedback Method: Situation Behavior and Impact
Start by clarifying your goal in offering the feedback.
My goal in giving you this feedback is to help you perform better. I know you want to do a good job, and I know that you have it in you to do more.
Note the situation, facts first, and the behavior that needs to change.
When we were in the meeting, I noticed that you said that you were behind on your deliverable. This is the third time that I've noticed this happening.
Be clear on the impact the behavior is having on you and the project.
When your work is behind, it makes me feel concerned for you and others on your team who are then delayed or forced to work on the weekend.
Offer an Affirmation
Clarify that you think well of them as a person and note any moments of positive impact.
I know you are better than this, and I have been happy to have you on the team. Last week, you gave a stellar presentation that helped us win the bid. I have confidence in you, and I support you.
Leave Space for Questions and Coaching
Now that you have delivered the feedback, give the receiver a chance to respond, ask questions or process their emotions. Use the techniques from this blog on listening to help you.
Relational feedback is the most difficult and the one we typically avoid most often with work colleagues, bosses, friends and family.
The best resource I've found for having these conversations is the tools from the book Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.
Conversation Preparation Tips
Prepare. Write down what you'd like to say. Map out your notes.
Wait. Don't enter into the conversation angry.
Timing. When you want to have a conversation may not be the right time for the other person. If you sense that it's not, ask when would be a good time for them. This shows that you are willing to meet their needs as well.
Stay open. Know what you want from the conversation, but don't get locked into to it. Be willing to allow the conversation to go in a direction that you don't expect. You can always take a break, reflect on the changes, and come back to it later.
Empathize. Put yourself in the other person's shoes, and imagine what they might be thinking or feeling. See if this gives you other thoughts or changes your perspective.
Questions. Come up with questions for the other person or people. What data or information gaps might they fill? Hint - using open-ended what and how questions tend to promote thoughtful dialogue.
Practice with a friend or colleague you trust.
Create safety. What conditions make you feel safe? What ground rules that if honored would help you listen? Write these down and ask for them when you open the conversation. For example... Listen without interruption. Assume noble intent. Suspend judgment. Look for common ground. Come with an open mind. Check for understanding.
Relational Feedback Methods
"I Statement" (developed by Thomas Gordon in the 1960's)
When you [their specific behavior], I feel [your feeling that results] because the story or perception I take away is [your perception]. What I need is [your need]. What if we try [proposed solution]?
When you speak to me that way, I feel shut down because I perceive that you don't care about my perspective. I need to feel heard and respected. What if you adjust your tone a bit? I know that will help me hear you better without shutting down.
Use the "I Want/I Don't Want" method from Crucial Conversations
I want you to know that I value you thinking of me when it comes to this new project. I don't want to diminish the importance of supporting this work. I have a need for time balance and want to be sure that my current projects have what they need before turning my attention here. What are your thoughts?
Use the "STATE" path from Crucial Conversations
Share Your Facts (and only the facts)
Susan, yesterday you sent an email discussing feedback about my project to my manager Joe. I was not included on this email.
Tell Your Story (your interpretation and feelings that resulted)
When that happened, I felt that you (Susan) did not trust me enough to give me the feedback directly, and I was worried about disciplinary action from my manager.
Ask for Others' Paths
Could you tell me what was going on for you? I have a need for trust and transparency, and I'd like to create conditions that enable both of us to share feedback openly and directly.
Assume noble intent from the other person.
If you can't agree, continue to offer options.
For more tips on identifying your fears during conflict, check out "Self-Coaching Activity: Self-Affirmations and Setting Boundaries with Others."
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You might also like:
Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler
The New One Minute Manager by William Morrow
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