Mills: How to give useful feedback

Most of us have experienced a situation where someone gave us feedback that caused us to react with defensiveness, or worse, retaliation.

Most of us have experienced a situation in our lives where someone —our manager or another colleague—gave us feedback on something we said or did that caused us to react with defensiveness, or worse, retaliation.

Why are we so sensitive to receiving feedback?

The number one reason is that people generally don’t know how to give it in a way that is constructive so it too often comes across as criticism.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

There are some key things to remember about giving constructive feedback that will greatly improve both the message and the response to it.

And by “constructive” I mean feedback delivered with the intention of improving something – an outcome, interactions with others, how work gets done, etc.

There are full workshops dedicated to helping people to learn and practise how to give feedback effectively.

Here, I will mention three tips that are easy to try out and will make a noticeable difference in the exchange.

First, feedback needs to be timely. If someone raises an incident that happened in the past, which we may or may not even remember, it’s simply too late for us to change what happened.

Feedback is much more effective if it is immediate.

It’s also fairer that way because then we at least have a chance to clear up any misunderstanding and make amends if necessary.

Second, useful feedback addresses specific actions and behaviour, rather than personality traits.

Notice the difference between saying “you came to the meeting without your report completed again” and, “you are constantly disorganized and unprepared.”

The first statement is impossible to argue with (assuming it is true) while the second one is insensitive (and possibly inaccurate).

If the intention is to get someone to change what they’re doing then the feedback needs to focus on actions that are concrete and observable, things they have some control over.

Third, never ever speak for others when you’re giving someone feedback.

For example, using words like “we all feel like you’re not pulling your weight lately” is not a good approach.

When this kind of comment comes at us, not only do we feel blindsided and defensive, we may also feel embarrassed by our own lack of awareness.

Ultimately, the message we hear is that our colleagues are talking negatively about us behind our backs and that never feels good.

In summary, to be useful feedback needs to be concrete and delivered with care in a timely way.

It has a much better chance of being received and acted upon that way.

And, if you’re going to give someone feedback, own it.  Speak for yourself only.

Not following the first two guidelines on feedback offered here can result in tension between two parties which is never good.

At least that conflict can be contained and resolved.

When the third principle is ignored there is potential for wider spread damage.

It can create a work atmosphere of distrust and negativity—the complete opposite effect that is needed for true teamwork.

Giving and receiving feedback is a learned skill.

There will likely always be some degree of discomfort to it, but our awkward moments offer wonderful opportunities to learn how to do it better the next time.

Laurie Mills is a certified executive coach and human resource professional. Her company is Lighthouse Professional Development Consulting Services.  The subject matter in this article is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as professional advice.