How to give effective feedback

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:

  • the context

  • 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

Be specific

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.