You’ve probably experienced the effect of receiving poorly-delivered feedback – your heart races, your barriers go up, your heels dig in. Feedback is essential to get better at what we want to do. But bad feedback can put the brakes on progress and, even worse, can send it into reverse. It’s worth taking the time to practice giving better feedback that is easier for others to receive and act on. In this way, feedback can be an effective lever for change.
I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot recently as I’ve struggled with giving and receiving critical feedback (probably linked to me being an Achiever and a Pleaser). Here are some lessons that I have taken on board from various podcasts, TED talks and conversations.
Return the unwanted gift
The first piece of advice that set me on this particular learning journey was from a friend who had taken part in a journalism course in Germany. Feedback, they said, is more a reflection of the person giving the feedback, not the receiver.
It is often said that “feedback is a gift”. As with any thoughtless gift, you don’t have to accept such feedback. It is just the opinion of the giver and can be returned, in part or fully. This is especially the case when the primary motivation of the feedback giver is to look smart in front of their peers!
How to give better feedback
So, how can we give better, more thoughtful feedback? Firstly, if they haven’t actually requested it, it’s important to ask if the person is interested in receiving feedback.
Secondly, ignore the common advice that recommends giving feedback as a positive-negative-positive sandwich, as this approach may appear insincere. Instead, think of one suggestion that could be of most use to the other person right now. Be as specific as possible, ideally using examples as evidence. Aim to use appreciative language; don’t focus on what they may have done wrong but on what they can improve. E.g. Don’t say “Your structure was too complex”, rather “I found your structure to be rather ambitious, could you simplify it to make it easier for me to follow?”.
In general, if your feedback is delivered on the basis of genuinely wanting to help the person, this makes the gift easier to accept and more useful. As does sharing feedback little and often, rather than saving it all up for just once a year at an appraisal.
A fun but useful way to become aware of how good your feedback delivery is to take this free on-line test.
How to better receive feedback
How can we receive feedback so it truly becomes a gift? Ideally, you will have requested feedback before the event or situation in question. In doing so, try to be as precise as possible on the aspects on which you’d like feedback, so that the giver(s) can look out for examples.
And while sometimes you may not be able to control when and how you receive feedback, you can control how you react to it. Don’t try to defend yourself. Remember, it’s just the giver’s opinion anyway. While you do need to hear the feedback soon after the event, that doesn’t mean that you need to react straight away. Indeed, you can simply thank the giver for their opinion and say you’ll reflect and get back to them later.
The self-reflection part is important if you want feedback to lead to improvements in what you do. As objectively as possible, reflect on which elements you would like to take on board and then make a deliberate decision on how you would do something differently next time. If you keep a journal, this may be something to write about in order to reinforce the learning process.
In order to encourage additional and perhaps even better feedback in the future, it’s naturally important that you, too, give feedback on the feedback received. “Thank you for taking the time to give me your feedback. I especially appreciated the part on x and I have now made a change to my approach on y, etc.”.
Not easy, but gets easier the more you practice!