Updated: Jun 21, 2019
I say to my coaching clients that the meaning of any communication is what the other person understands.
What you mean to say, what your intention is, is irrelevant.
This is absolutely crucial when giving feedback.
It is your responsibility, as the feedback giver, to make sure that it is clearly understood.
In addition, feedback is defined as information that is “used for the purposes of making improvement”.
It is pointless unless it leads to a change - a change in behaviour, a change in performance, a change in results.
Again, responsibility for making sure feedback leads to a change lies, initially, with you, the feedback giver. You need to make sure you are completely clear about what needs to change, and how.
Feedback can take many forms: an annual performance review (which I’ve discussed in a previous blog here); formal comments on a proposal; or a word in an ear after a meeting.
But there are some key principles to bear in mind if you want to make sure your feedback is both understood, and acted upon, so that it achieves its purpose.
These are set out below, under the following headings:
what you say
how you say it .
1. The Context
Location can have a huge influence on how your feedback is received.
I remember once starting a difficult conversation with a boss, and after about five minutes (when emotions were beginning to run high) he suggested that we leave the meeting room and go for a walk in the local park instead.
Having the discussion, not facing each other, but side by side as we walked together created a completely different atmosphere.
The confrontation was taken out of the situation. Instead we were able to discuss what had happened in a much calmer, more effective way.
It isn’t always possible to go for a walk in a park to give feedback.
But it also doesn’t always have to take place in your office.
Think creatively about what context might support the feedback you want to give:
would a coffee in your organisation’s cafeteria be better, for a more informal feeling?
or even leaving the building for a local coffee shop?
or you could book a meeting room if you want it to be more formal?
But wherever you decide to give the feedback, make it one-to-one, even if it’s just finding a quiet corner away from other people.
It is not fair to offer someone feedback (that could be perceived as criticism) with an audience.
The only exception to this is if the feedback relates to a disciplinary procedure, in which case you (or the person receiving the feedback) might like another person present. In that situation, this should be agreed in advance.
Feedback can either take place at a formally-arranged time and place (in which case, it is worth considering the location).
Or it can be ad hoc, immediately after you see something that would benefit from feedback.
“In the moment” feedback can be very powerful, because the event is fresh in everyone’s mind.
This can be extremely effective when it relates to one small comment or observation.
If, however, you have a larger amount or more detailed feedback to give, it’s worth giving yourself time to prepare.
If you do go for the “in the moment” approach, still make sure that the location is appropriate to your purpose.
And always still think through what you are going to say, and how you are going to say it, before you do.
2. What You Say
For feedback to be useful, it needs to be directly related to something specific. Telling someone they need “they are not authoritative enough” is not helpful.
Before you start giving someone feedback, you need to identify a specific occasion where the behaviour or product was not what you wanted, and know exactly how it fell short.
And it is crucial make sure that the feedback is about the work, and the results, never a criticism about someone’s personality.
This needs to be clear in your own mind before you move onto the next element…
Suggestions for change
Once you are clear about how the behaviour or product fell short, you need to know exactly what you would have wanted instead.
This is what makes feedback constructive, rather than just critical.
Clarify some specific things the person could have done differently, that you believe would have given better results.
Don’t make this an endless list - they won’t be able to take it in. 1-3 is a good number.
But make sure they are as SMART as possible (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant and Time-bound).
3. How You Say It
You have probably heard of the feedback “sandwich”: positive comment, constructive comment about something that needs to change, positive comment.
This is because the human brain is programmed to focus on the negative stuff, which means people can be unhelpfully affected by what they see as “negative” feedback.
Remember, the purpose of your feedback is to influence a change in the person you’re giving it to. If they are demoralised, they are likely to make a positive change.
So do use the feedback “sandwich”! It really does help.
But more than that, at the end ask them specifically what they have heard.
If they only mention the “negative” comment, remind them of the bits of positive feedback as well.
You want them to leave feeling that they are being supported to make a change for the better, not crushed by criticism.
Feedback is more likely to be perceived as criticism, and taken badly, if it is presented in a hectoring, critical tone.
Get yourself in a constructive state before you start the feedback - take a deep breath, and ground yourself by focusing on the feeling of your feet on the ground.
Slow your voice, and try to infuse your voice with more of a supportive tone than a critical one.
This has a big impact on how the actual words are received.
And similarly, avoid using over critical body language - crossed arms, pointing fingers.
An open posture from you will help create an open mindset in them, which is what you want.
As with a mentoring conversation, you will get better, longer-lasting results if you can encourage the person to find their own answers.
You still need to go into the conversation with a clear idea about what the issue was, and what needs to be done instead; but rather than just TELLING, ask questions to lead the person to these conclusions.
It is entirely appropriate to make suggestions, if they are not quite getting there…
But if the style of the conversation is one of supportive enquiry rather than a “telling off”, it will be much more productive.
The end of the conversation is crucial, as this is the bit that will last longest in the memory.
As mentioned above, ask them what they have understood from the conversation, to make sure they remember the positive bits and the negative bits.
And make sure the specific changes that are needed are absolutely clear.
If it’s appropriate, record these somewhere (in a performance review, in an email).
And certainly make the effort to follow-up on the feedback at an appropriate interval - ideally by commenting on the improvement.
Everyone likes praise, and will be more motived to act on future feedback if they know that you are not only watching, but appreciating their efforts.
And that’s it - steps to help you give better feedback.
Finally, don't forget that an important part of GIVING effective feedback is being good at RECEIVING feedback on the process from the person you are talking with.
So don't forget to offer them an opportunity to ask questions, and to tell you how the feedback conversation has been for them.
This is a wonderful opportunity for you to learn and improve.
Next week I will be looking at the same subject from the other side - how to become great at getting feedback.
Have a good week!
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