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The Art of Giving Feedback

Thank you Lisa Malcolm for the provocation to write more about how to give good feedback – here are some of my thoughts, although I am sure you (and others) will have more to add …

First, all feedback will provoke a reaction. For example, Lisa commented on one of my LinkedIn posts, talking about the importance of giving feedback, suggesting that I (someone) talk more about how to give it, acknowledging that we all know it’s needed.

My reaction was – gosh, Lisa’s right. Knowing feedback is important to give is one thing, understanding how to offer it is quite another.

Kubler Ross explored the impacts of change in grief depicted through her Grief Cycle or Change Curve image:

What’s important to know is that we all, whether receiving positive or development feedback, will visit some or all of these points on the curve. Some of us process fast and whiz through the stages quickly coming to acceptance easily; some of us take longer (minutes, hours, days and even months) to go through the same process. Others of us rock back and forth between stages making progress and then retrenching into pockets of doubt and reflection. This model helps us understand what may be going on for a receiver of feedback - it most certainly is not a one size fits all guide. Feedback givers therefore need to become friends with being patient, allowing space for others to process as they need to, not as we might like or want them to – even if that desire for someone to ‘get over’ or through their journey of processing may come from a loving place.

In giving feedback there are things to avoid and things to consider. Being properly and thoroughly prepared is paramount. After all, all feedback is a gift … especially so when it has been thoughtfully chosen, beautifully wrapped, and offered with a gift receipt … (more on this later!).

Feedback receiving – things to know

When receiving feedback know that you will be impacted. Because of this, it’s important to take time to process. So, there’s only one response to give to feedback … yep, only one!

To say Thank You!

Then, allow yourself time to process the information and reflect on whether there is merit in what has been offered to you. If there is and there’s learning in there for you – take it, absorb the message, act on it, develop yourself, do more of that great thing, do less of that awkward thing, buy more things in that colour! If it’s really not resonant to you, employ the power of the metaphorical gift receipt – and let the gift go.

Not all feedback is fact. Sometimes it can be an opinion; a perception (sure another’s reality although not necessarily our own, or even accurate); a projection (we react most strongly in others to those things we dislike in ourselves).

When you are leaning in to be dismissive – “oh, it’s what I always do” … “aw, it’s just my job” … “this?! It’s just an old thing” … STOP. Say “thank you” instead and reserve your time to consider what’s been offered.

When you feel yourself rising in defence – do the same … “Ah, ok, thank you.”

Notice how you respond and react to receiving feedback. Know that no matter how clumsy someone is being in their offer, mostly, the offer is coming from a good place. Mostly, the offer will be painful or embarrassing somehow for the individual to give. Mostly, they will be saying something in service of you developing yourself.

Feedback giving – things to know

Now, for all you feedback givers out there … oh, hang on, that’ll be all of us! Here are three key things for you to think about, and plan for:

1) Advertise

2) Cut the bullshit (sandwiches)

3) FEEL your way into the dialogue

Let’s explore…

1) Advertise

I’ve spoken about this before – a reminder of what I mean though. When we are giving feedback – especially in a formal setting (like a monthly 1:1 or an annual review) – I believe it’s really important to be unambiguous about what you’re going to do and say. For example, mumbling in an unfocused way about all the things you’re going to cover, jumping between subjects, is unhelpful for the listener and discourteous of both their time and intelligence. Help the listener to understand the process you’re going to follow.

For example: ‘I’d like to share some observations of your performance in a few different circumstances. I’d like to share thoughts on positive contributions as well as areas where I think it will be important for you to focus on development in service of your career growth. I’d like to hear from you about your reactions and plans and, I would like to know what I could do more of or less of as your … leader, manager, friend … (*delete as appropriate).

Be clear this is a two-way dialogue – not a one-way street.

Be clear that some of the feedback (only when this is the case obviously!) may be tricky to give/hear – although it is in service of development, improvement, and building towards a successful outcome.

Be clear you are there, as the feedback giver, to support the receiver, to continue to be connected and to follow up with how to sustain great behaviours or improve skills, capabilities and approaches.

2) Cut the bullshit (sandwiches)

This sarnie concoction is simply THE WORST way to give feedback and says much more about the feedback giver than the receiver. It is a ploy often used to ‘soften the blow’ of difficult messages.

Here’s the thing. THAT’S UNHELPFUL! A receiver of a message delivered like this will often be confused. And nothing sticks. They leave feeling totally deflated and unsure of the genuineness and intent of any of the messaging. Good – bad – good. The good gets lost and uncelebrated, the bad stands out like a sore thumb and is invariably unexplored. Rather it’s dumped on the receiver’s lap as a ‘here’s your problem – you pop off and deal with it … OK?’ thing.

If you practice this form of feedback giving … STOP! Stop, at once and become more sophisticated in your storytelling. Help someone to understand, take time to explore, hear their perspective, learn what is happening for that individual … put simply – get out of your own way, get over your own discomforts and care more!

If you wanted the responsibility of a more senior role, take that responsibility seriously. It’s mostly about looking after your people and supporting them to be the best they can possibly be; to thrive in your wardship. That’s no mean undertaking and NOT to be taken lightly.

3) FEEL your way into the dialogue

A mnemonic to help remember the fundamentals of giving feedback. Use this model to plan for your feedback sessions…

Facts – only feedback what you have personally witnessed, experienced, seen, heard because only then will your message be resonant. If you have to give third party feedback, give it openly and honestly as that. “In my due diligence for this conversation I asked a few colleagues for a point of view and this is what they had to say … “. Anything that is not personally gathered from your lived experience cannot be presented as a FACT. It can only be conjecture.

Emotions – own, understand and explain the impact that the observations you are sharing have had on you. Speak from I, speak from a place of personal acknowledgement.

Elaborations – appreciate that we, all humans, are storytellers. Because of this, we add assumption and projected meaning onto others’ actions. Be clear on what yours are as you give feedback.

Live – work together with the feedback receiver to bring to life the feedback points and learn how to sustain them, build on them, make improvements and ‘do’ something with what they’ve been offered.


Positive feedback:

Fact – when you came in last Thursday, on your day off, to support the project delivery …

Emotions – I felt supported by you. I feel gratitude towards you …

Elaborations – For me, that meant that you are dedicated to the team, the company and to your clients …

Live – I would like to acknowledge your commitment, learn from you what drove you to make that choice and use that learning and your dedication to role model this one aspect of teamwork for myself and others.

Developmental feedback:

Fact – when you didn’t return my call for two days …

Emotions – I felt disappointed and angry …

Elaborations – I thought that you were letting yourself and the team down. I think calls ought to be returned on the same day …

Live – I would like to understand more about your choice of action, to think about what would stop that happening in the future and get commitment for different behaviours going forward.

I would hope that by advertising more, sandwiching less and planning to FEEL your way into feedback conversations you, and your feedback receiver, will feel more engaged, empowered and happier to act and grow with and through the art of giving and the act of receiving the gift of feedback.

I hope this is helpful.

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Posted on Mon, May 24, 2021 in Coaching Leadership Personal Development
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