Giving Feedback

We all recognize that giving feedback to others can definitely be tricky – even on a good day we may struggle with communication barriers, big emotions, or just not finding the right technique to talk to a specific individual. Although there are different techniques to use to successfully give feedback to others, if not done thoughtfully, we could damage relationships, negatively impact someone’s efforts, or hurt someone’s feelings either at home, work or with valued friends.

First steps

The most important thing to consider when giving feedback regardless of the situation is to simply be aware of our motivation for doing so. If we’re giving feedback in a resentful or angry manner, for example, we’re not being effective in helping others and instead focusing on inflating our own egos and trying to prove ourselves right. Alternately, if our motivation is that we want to be liked (or avoid an awkward conversation) and we tell someone ‘it was great’ when it wasn’t, then that person is missing out on useful information and opportunities to improve; we’re also at risk of betraying their trust in us. Feedback is meant to be helpful, otherwise, it’s just criticism or empty words.

It’s also important to recognize that many people will be wary of the feedback we give, even when they’ve asked for our ‘honest opinion’. They may think that we are assigning blame, being picky, or pointing out faults. We should always be aware that others may be cautious or defensive, despite our best efforts. However, that doesn’t mean we should avoid it altogether, so here are some helpful tips for giving feedback effectively:

What giving feedback should involve:  

  • Focus on improvement and suggested solutions – not individual shortcomings and criticism so that it’s not seen as a personal attack. This may result in resentment and missing the point, rather than progress.
  • Look only at objective facts, including the situation at hand and/or the behaviour – not the individual. Keep any negative emotions out of the equation and minimize friction.
  • Well-timed – it’s important to be sensitive to the person and if the feedback can wait for a better time, that’s advisable.
  • Be specific and clear; make sure it’s understood and stay on track. For example, we wouldn’t say: “I don’t like what you wear.” Better option: “In this workplace, we have a specific dress code; it’s more formal than what you’ve been recently wearing to work, such as no flip flops and no ripped jeans. Please have a look at the policy and let me know if you have any questions.”
  • Time to allow for discussion or clarification if needed.

What giving feedback shouldn’t involve:

  • Feedback shouldn’t be bossy, condescending or self-serving.
  • It shouldn’t dwell on things that are out of someone’s control – or that are not realistic or do-able.
  • It shouldn’t sweat the small stuff (unless it’s related to an important job where details are critical).

The Sandwich

Some of us have used the ‘The Feedback Sandwich’ technique in the workplace, which is often used as part of regular employee feedback, but frankly, it’s helpful to know it for any situation where feedback is called for. This practice involves giving a piece of positive feedback at the beginning and end, and the main ‘critique’ portion of the feedback is in the middle. The point of this is to buffer anything that may be taken as negative with something that is more positive; thus helping to keep confidence and motivation up. For example, we may say “Your staff training on the new software was well-received and 89% of attendees said they would recommend it. We did hear that some of the handouts were hard to read, and the screen kept flickering. Next time be sure to print everything carefully and check that the equipment works before you start. Overall, we are very pleased and look forward to the next session”. This option helps the person feel valued for their efforts while learning important areas to improve upon. It’s a handy, helpful technique to keep in our back pockets.

The final word on giving feedback:

Many people avoid giving feedback altogether to maintain harmony. I don’t recommend this approach because it simply prolongs and amplifies problems rather than addressing them. Working through conflicts early helps to prevent bottled-up feelings from erupting later. Conflict is quite healthy in this regard when it is addressed and worked through early. Further, having empathy and emotional intelligence are important competencies in understanding the impact of feedback and choosing our words wisely. If we can take an extra moment to spare someone’s feelings, while helping propel them towards future successes, then that’s something we can be proud of.

“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.” – Elon Musk