The art of giving and receiving feedback

Feedback can be a wonderful gift to receive, helping us to grow as we’re helped to see our blindspots or recognise how our behaviour affects others. Yet most of us hesitate to ask for feedback, and few of us are comfortable giving feedback to others. Here are ten simple perspectives and a few practical ideas on giving and receiving feedback wisely and well, and without embarrassment, hurt or avoidance.

Become someone who asks for feedback

If you ask for feedback regularly and become known as someone who values others’ perspectives and feedback (and acts on it), then those who know you best will feel safer and more confident to offer feedback. They’re also likely to offer more meaningful feedback, rather than superficial platitudes, if they get the sense that you really want to hear from them.  But don’t just say, ‘Give me some feedback’.  How you ask for feedback makes a world of difference to what happens next, so…

Be thoughtful and creative in how you ask for feedback

Just asking “How did I do?” or “Can you read this and give me feedback?” (even when you add ‘please’) is unlikely to elicit the most valuable feedback.  “How did I do?” invites the response of “Fine.” You’ll get what you asked for! Instead, try thinking up more pointed ways of asking people to share their feedback. When requesting feedback, carefully crafted questions reveal something of what you care about, and can calibrate and focus the responder’s attention, making it much easier for them to provide you with valuable insights.  Here are some example of more focused requests for feedback:

  • About a talk:  What came across to you as the main point?  Which elements helped to land that? What distracted or detracted from making the main point clear?
  • About an article or a document: If I had to lose 20% of this article or document , which bit should I lose?  If I could only keep 20% of it, which bit should I keep?
  • About a training session or talk: Is there an order in which I could cover this material that would work better for you?
  • About leadership impact: What have I done in the last six months that have helped the team to flourish? In what ways have I made things harder for colleagues?
  • About dealing wtih pressure: What have you noticed about the way I function when things are really pressurised?  Have you got any suggestions for how I could minimise the way my own pressures affect others around me?
  • About meetings:  What aspects of our meetings (timing, location, agendas etc) are working and why is that? What aspects could we usefully change to make it work better for everyone

Receive feedback with grace and appreciation

If you react defensively to feedback, the honesty and value of what others are prepared to tell you will decline quickly or disappear altogether. Showing both appreciation and curiosity as a first response to feedback demonstrates.

Try saying:

  • “That’s so helpful, I’ve never thought about it in that way before.  Do I do that often or was it just in this instance?”
  • “Thanks for taking the trouble to tell me.  What effect does it have on you or other people when I do that?”
  • I never realised I tend to do that.  Have you seen someone do it in a different way that might work better for me?

It’s better to give feedback than to gossip

Human beings can be very perceptive about the actions of others, even if we’re often inaccurate in our judgments of their motives.  But we tend to be much more inclined to ‘share our observations’ with other friends and colleagues than we are to share those observations with the person whose behaviour or action we’re talking about. And a lot of the time, this probably falls into the category of gossip. Far better, therefore, to develop the courage and skills to talk constructively to someone about their behaviour or its impact on you than to talk about them to friends and colleagues.

Feedback about what’s good and helpful is at least as valuable as feedback about things that aren’t working so well or need to be better

Imagine if we all became excellent observers (appreciators) of the ways someone is doing a great job, or demonstrating valuable qualities, or having an important impact! People often approach feedback with a critical or ‘deficit’ mindset, feeling that they are expected to spotlight  problem areas to help someone fix their ‘weaknesses’.

But feedback can just as easily be appreciative, drawing attention to behaviours that helped us or actions that had an important impact – or perhaps just acknowledging something simple like the fact that someone kept going in a difficult situation or that they didn’t react to provocation, for example. Just having someone notice and appreciate small things can be a wonderful encouragement – and it all counts as feedback.

Focus on describing rather than judging.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of going straight to evaluation or judgement: “that was really great” (insincere smile).  Instead, try and get into a habit of first observing and then describing both what you notice happening, and then describe what effect you noticed it having on you or others around you. Be as specific as possible:  not “Your communication style is great”’ but rather “I noticed that you varied your pitch and pace and that helped me to stay engaged.  When you got to the main point, the way you repeated it and then paused really got my attention.”

Here’s another example:  not “Your leadership style needs improvement” but rather “I’ve noticed that you tend to present things as a fait accompli, and your language in today’s meeting implied that things are more certain or decided than they actually are. That seems to close down the inclination of others to contribute, and the result is that we’re not bringing many ideas to the table”.

Take time to consider both the feedback you give and any feedback you receive

When you’re asked to give feedback, try to spend a little time, even if just a few minutes, thinking about the observations you want to share and jotting down the descriptor and the effect.

When you receive feedback, make a note of what’s been said, thank the person who’s said it, ask for a little more detail, and then take some time to consider it.  Try to avoid responding immediately, when your instinct might be to bat away a compliment or be defensive about something that lands as more negative. Instead say something like, “I appreciate you mentioning that; I’ll think about it. Thanks.”

Remember that feedback you give says as much about you as it says about the other person

When I make an observation, no matter how neutral it might be, it says something about what I notice and care about.  When I say something about another person or situation, whether I’m being appreciative or critical, both what I say and how I say it reveals something about my character.  I can make an observation with compassion or with envy, with appreciation or with frustration, with courage or with embarrassment, with clarity or with haste: each of these reveals something of my heart!

Bear in mind that any feedback we give or receive is not objective truth

Neither my feedback to others nor any feedback I may receive is infallible. I need to remember this when I offer feedback to others, and adopt a suitably humble posture, offering my perspective as only one view: perhaps born of great knowledge and experience, sure, but nonetheless, other insights are available.

And when others give me feedback, what I’m getting is their perception and perspective.  So it is valuable but only ever partial – and sometimes very different from how other people see and experience you.  Accept the feedback as something they’ve offered you, but just like all gifts, we don’t have to use it every day or display it on the mantelpiece.  Sometimes it needs to be tucked away in a drawer! And in future, if you receive other similar feedback, that’s the time to pull it out the drawer and reflect on it more deeply.

Remember: ‘faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful’
(Prov 27:6)

Growing, changing and becoming more like Jesus – not more like my boss or my tutor or my pastor – is ultimately the work of God’s Spirit in us.  Give thanks for the brothers and sisters he’s united us with and whose loving feedback may be sometimes painful but ultimately kind.