Giving Helpful Feedback

I’ve written before in this space (here, here, and here) about some effective ways to deal with helpful and unhelpful feedback you receive from other people. Now let’s turn this around and cover some of the ways you can be sure the feedback you offer to others is as helpful as you can make it.

This is important because working well with others is central to so much of productivity and success, which underscores why development and maintenance of good relationships is always a top priority. Giving helpful feedback is among the best ways you can tune-up your relationships with others so they’re more interested in working with you and more willing to meet your needs.

Of course, it goes almost without saying that to have others work well with you, you must be interested in and willing to work well with them. But that’s a topic for another day.

On the topic of giving helpful feedback, my suggestions include:

Specify the Situation

Most people make the mistake of giving feedback that’s too general, along the lines of: ‘You’re in too much of a hurry,” or “You don’t listen enough.”

The most helpful feedback, however, tends to be specific, and the first thing to specify is the situation on which your feedback is based. For example:

  • “In that meeting we just left,”
  • “When you were talking to Joe the other day,”
  • “In your answer to the question I just asked you,”

or some other highly specific descriptor that nails down exactly what situation you’re referencing.

Specify the Behavior

Having set the scene, helpful feedback will next specify exactly what behavior you’ve noticed. Behavior is important here because it’s very difficult to give feedback on intangibles, like a person’s motivation, emotional tone, or internal agenda. You can’t really know what someone was thinking, feeling, or wanting in a specific situation.

But you can say what they said or did, or how they said it or did it. For example:

  • “Your voice was too loud,”
  • “Your choice of words was inappropriate,”
  • “Your body language was threatening,”
  • “You didn’t fully express your opinion (or belief),
  • “You treated them disrespectfully,”
  • “You didn’t give enough facts,”
  • “You let Joe walk all over you,”

or some other highly specific descriptor of their behavior in the situation.

Specify Your Reaction

The crux of good feedback is the specific impact on you, and possibly others, of what the person said or did, or how they said it or did it.

This element of impact can include practical, intellectual, and emotional results. What’s more, in terms of situational behavior, having no impact is also an impact.

For example:

  • “You left them uncertain of your preference,”
  • “I felt you were unwilling to hear their criticisms,”
  • “You could have said more about how you read the forces working against us,”
  • “Joe told me he felt dismissed or disregarded,”
  • “You underplayed your passion for the project,”
  • “You didn’t cover your entire plan for the month,”

or some other highly specific appraisal of the person’s impact in the situation.

Additional Considerations

  • There’s a tendency, when giving feedback, to give too much at once. When you provide a laundry list of many thoughts and feeling about many behaviors in many situations, you’re delivering a tidal wave of feedback that can be overpowering and damaging, rather than productive.

It’s far more fruitful to stay focused on one behavior in one situation, and its one main impact. This way, you’re providing more of a “bite-sized” chunk of feedback that someone can readily understand, absorb, and take to heart. You can always give additional feedback at other times about other specific behaviors.

  • It’s also important to stay positive. Almost any problem or mistake can more positively induce improvement when phrased as an opportunity or a challenge to do better.
  • Unless you’ve been tasked to give feedback from an entire group, it’s almost always better to stay personal and give your feedback as one person having one reaction to one bit of behavior. If you allow the source to become too universal – as in “we all think” – it becomes a heavy weight that can drag on the recipient and lead to  discouragement. Personal feedback, on the other hand, often leads to deeper bonding and a greater willingness to try living up to higher standards of behavior.
  • After you’ve given your helpful feedback, it’s often useful to stay in the moment and support the other person as they begin to develop a strategy and a plan for making use of the information you’ve just provided.

Without steamrollering them or handing down advice, you can ask leading questions and serve as a sounding board to help them discover their own ideas for how to do and say things more effectively.

In practice, you’ll find giving helpful feedback is a great way to attract and build a cadre of people who greatly appreciate you and willingly cooperate in efforts to improve results in your work and your life

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