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Highlights | Giving feedback effectively

  • Giving and receiving feedback effectively is an important part of communication.
  • Although feedback is intended to be constructive and developmental, it oftentimes feels awkward for both parties.
  • Having a plan beforehand and making feedback an opportunity for conversation is a great way for everyone to feel involved in driving possible solutions and to build or strengthen relationships.

Communication is a constant give and receive of feedback signals — it’s how we understand each other. At work, giving constructive and actionable feedback is a skill, and one that takes deliberate practice, says Jonathan Newman, an Organization Development & Training consultant.

“We should all treat feedback as developmental and not punitive or personal,” says Newman. “While also acknowledging that it’s hard to depersonalize from feedback because it does feel quite personal.”

Feedback should be treated, by both sides, as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. Knowing this, how do we provide feedback that is useful and simultaneously builds relationships?

DO: Plan and prepare

If you are someone who likes to wing it or “freestyle,” this might be a good exercise in being proactive. You don’t necessarily need to write out a script, but planning will certainly help your message come across more clearly.

Know what you’re trying to communicate and why and practice it before the actual conversation with the feedback receiver.

Newman recommends the simple, yet effective Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) method.

As you prepare for feedback conversations, identify beforehand the:

  • Situation: pinpoint the context, setting and other relevant factors at play.
  • Behavior: state the observable action or behavior, rather than your judgement of the behavior, and have examples ready.
  • Impact: describe how the action or behavior had impact, either at a personal or work level (such as the team goals for the day or the objectives for the week).

The SBI method works well for both positive feedback (or praise) and for constructive developmental feedback, and prepares you to have a focused and fluid conversation.

DO: Have a two-way conversation

Make sure you’re talking rather than telling. Feedback that sticks is more than just telling someone to do it differently, it’s having an exchange where there are pauses for silence, active listening, questions and discussion.

“I think if you are the feedback giver, the more and well-timed pauses you can do to open up the conversation the better,” says Newman. “It should be a conversation that’s dynamic, not just one-way — and the more you can ask open-ended questions like ‘what was your experience of the situation,’ ‘is there anything I’m missing that you’d like to add,’ or ‘what ideas do you have to prevent this in the future,’ the more you can involve them in driving or co-creating the solution.”

Acknowledging what the other person is saying — whether you are the feedback giver or receiver — is an important part of making everyone feel not just heard but understood. And of course, at the end, thank them for their time.

DO: Make it timely

“The longer you wait, the more likely people won’t remember that specific occurrence,” says Newman.

Putting off critical feedback conversations is easy because it can feel awkward, so naturally we may avoid these important dialogues and it can result in missed learning opportunities. Thus, having recent examples is vital to establish how that person’s action had an impact (and where).

DON’T: Use a compliment sandwich

The compliment sandwich is a feedback method where you sandwich positive feedback before and after giving constructive feedback.

“People can see right through it,” says Newman. And here’s why: most of the time it doesn’t feel authentic.

There is also the potential problem of the recency and primacy effect in which people tend to remember the first and last parts of presented information. In the compliment sandwich, the constructive feedback in the middle can get muddled.

Plus, you should be regularly giving positive feedback in addition to constructive feedback, so that your co-worker knows you value them and the work they are doing. Newman recommends considering the ratio of praise to constructive feedback that you give and where in your weekly interactions does adjusting that ratio make sense.

DON’T: Be broad, vague or nebulous

Use examples. Full stop.

Constructive feedback should focus on facts. Do not make assumptions about intent or pass judgement on the other person.

“Judge the problem or task, not the person,” says Newman. It goes back to being prepared and utilizing the SBI model before even having the conversation.

Newman gives this example:

“At Wednesday’s team meeting I noticed you interrupted your coworkers a few times. When you interrupt your colleagues, it makes it challenging for everyone on the team to voice their opinions, which could be a barrier to our brainstorming session and moving forward with this project. What are your thoughts or ideas on how we can provide more space for others during team conversations?”

DON’T: Use a one-size-fits-all approach

Consider finding out how your colleagues like to receive feedback. If you can establish this at the start of your relationship, it will be easier to have constructive feedback conversations in the future. If that’s something you haven’t done yet, it could be worth bringing up in your next 1:1 meeting.

How people prefer to receive feedback, and when, varies from person to person. Some people may want a casual heads up via Slack or Teams while another person might want a sit-down meeting with time to prepare and bullet points or an agenda sent in advance.

“Determine what is feasible (within reason), in accommodating feedback preferences,” says Newman. “Taking into account their feedback preferences conveys that you actually heard them. It also shows that you give individualized attention and indicates that you care about their professional development. It builds the relationship.”

The biggest takeaway? Giving feedback effectively takes effort and it takes practice.

“It may always be an awkward and hard thing, but the more you practice the easier it becomes,” says Newman.

Photo Caption: © Valeriya Simantovskaya / Stocksy United