How to give feedback well – 7 top tips

Podcast transcript:

Feedback is part and parcel of the world of work today. How does feedback come our way? Well, it can be formally through a 360-degree feedback process or maybe through a performance management conversation. Or it can be informally, when someone tells us about something they liked or didn’t like about something we did or said.

Feedback typically has some emotion attached to it, both in terms of giving (because we tend to get anxious that we can’t control how someone else is going to respond) and receiving (because we tend to get anxious that we’ll lose control emotionally when someone delivers us their feedback message).

And feedback also has a lot of value, once we’ve heard it… properly… given ourselves time to reflect on it and then, when appropriate, acted on it to make changes to ourselves in some way. And bear in mind that sometimes those changes are not what would have been anticipated when taking the feedback at face value.

Today I want to give you seven top tips for getting the best from feedback, particularly when giving it, but with a couple of references to receiving feedback too.  So let’s go with my top 7 tips for feedback…

Feedback tip 1: Deal with your own baggage

I mentioned already that feedback has an emotional element to it for many of us. It’s important to acknowledge that before delivering your feedback message. What preconceptions do you have about feedback? How well do you take it? (The answer, for most people, is not particularly well and not particularly willingly BTW).  Do you get anxious that you might make matters worse when delivering a feedback message or that you might upset someone else’s feelings, perhaps worrying that they might even get emotional?

Whatever the story you’re telling yourself about feedback, based on your own experiences, anxieties, fears, etc. know that this will have an effect on how you deliver feedback unless you deal with you own baggage first. So take a deep breath and recognise that if you’re going to give someone feedback, your own biases are likely to be lurking, so try and deal with them, or at least park them, in order to give it your best shot.

Feedback tip 2: Prepare, don’t do it on the fly

Part of moving past your own feedback baggage is to prep well. Consider and ideally write down what you’re going to say. It’s probably best not to overprepare but I’ve found that writing down the flow of what you want to say 1. helps take some of the emotional heat out of it, 2. helps you get more confident that what you’ll say will have value, 3. helps convince you that it won’t lead to an emotional meltdown by the recipient and finally, 4. it helps get the ordering and flow of things clear in your head. Even if you don’t refer to your notes (and you may well not) when you actually have the conversation, I’ve always found that the process of writing it down gets it pretty much committed to memory anyway.

Feedback tip 3: Start with a statement of positive purpose

Before giving feedback, it’s always important to say that you want things to be better as a result of what you’re going to share and that this is your intention. You’re not doing this to point fingers, to criticise or belittle or condescend to or blame. So to set up a piece of feedback to land well, rather than using the traditional sandwich approach (where you give the actual feedback sandwiched in between two positive messages), I recommend starting off on a positive footing to communicate that your intentions are good and that you want things to work out for the best.

Feedback tip 4: Do it sooner rather than later

Feedback is more powerful when delivered as soon as possible after the event, when it is clearer in everyone’s minds and not made hazy by the passing of time, later events and our often revisionist memory-making process.  So do it as soon as you can after something has happened where you can.

Feedback doesn’t land well when it’s been stored up over repeated occasions and not communicated, largely because the recipient may feel that they haven’t had the opportunity to learn from what you could have said to them earlier and that can erode, rather than build, trust.

BTW, that’s one of the reasons that appraisal conversations can be so controversial – they often tend to be lists of things that someone could have done better but they’re not delivered in a day to day practical way, more stored up to drop on someone after a period of months. So stop with that, and start with giving people feedback as you go, in the flow of work.

Feedback tip 5: Be prepared to receive, as well as to give

To get good at feedback-giving, it’s worth getting good at feedback-getting.  So make a habit of asking for it, ideally from the same or similar people to those who you’re likely to give it to. That way you can role model how to receive feedback well. To do it well, you need to have some tactics for how to receive feedback (as I say, for most of us, receiving feedback invokes a defensive emotional response, at least initially).

If that sounds like you, tactics to manage yourself can include 1. asking for more information so that you can be clearer on what you might consider changing, 2. asking for time to process what you’ve heard and coming back to the feedback-giver later, and 3. using positive body language while you’re receiving the feedback to make the feedback-giver feel more at ease and happier to fully share their perspective.  Afterwards, you can go and scream into your hand but when in the moment, it’s ideal if you can keep it together.

Feedback tip 6: Be clear and succinct

Because of the baggage and anxieties that get wrapped around feedback, all too often, people will underprepare and will then not have done enough work on exactly what they want to say. So then when they come to delivering the message, it can be garbled, muddied and club sandwich-y (with positives and negatives all mixed together, which is confusing for the recipient). So be clear and succinct.

Hand-in-hand with that goes limiting your feedback to one message and ideally limiting your supporting evidence to provide just enough to make your point. If you try and give too much feedback with too many examples, you’re likely to emotionally hijack the recipient and that won’t lead to the feedback landing well. So clear, succinct and limited to one piece of feedback at a time.

You also need to give the feedback recipient an opportunity to ask for clarification, examples, and to respond in the moment if they want to, making sure you’re giving them more airtime because you haven’t overexplained but instead you’ve been summary and clear in what you’ve shared, will help them feel like it’s more two-way than one-way.

Feedback tip 7: Follow it up

In some cases, it’s important to follow up on feedback, to check in with how the recipient is doing, anything they have done as a result, anything that they’d like more clarity on. This is most important when you’ve agreed to give them time to go away and think about it but it’s good practice anyway, just to be sure that the message has been received in the way you intended it and to show that you’re still interested and supportive, and that as you hopefully said at the time, you want there to be a positive outcome from the conversation.

In conclusion – feedback when done well can be a powerful force for good

Feedback, when done well, is a good thing. It can shine a light on blind spots, it can reinforce and encourage positive behaviour and it can limit personal, team and business risks. To do it well takes practice, good role modelling and some discipline in the way you set it up and deliver the message.  Good luck with your feedback-giving! Till next time, stay strong.