I once worked for someone who would periodically stroll into my office and say, "Can I give you some feedback?" Obviously, I wasn’t likely to say no to my boss, so I’d nod and swallow, knowing what was really coming. It was always–and I mean always–a criticism about a project, one of my staff, or of me. After several of such instances, I noticed myself beginning to take a defensive posture in such moments and realized I needed to change this dynamic. When he was done with his "feedback" one day, I finally seized the opportunity to ask him, "Now may I give you some feedback?" A bit surprised, he said yes. "Feedback," I said, "is not the same as criticism."
I recall a poster I once saw that distinguished feedback from criticism in a very visual way. One drawing showed a hand with scissors, with the scissor points aimed toward another person’s hand. This was criticism. The second drawing showed a hand with scissors, with handles facing toward the other person’s hand. This was feedback. While perhaps a bit simplistic, it drove the point home.
When we criticize, we entice the other person into defensive mode, much like a person might defend against scissor points coming toward them. This not only reduces the chance that they will take in and do something constructive with our information, but also creates a potentially difficult dynamic in the long run.
When we share real feedback, we reduce the implied threat and the defensive response, and we invite the other person into a discussion about potential and opportunity. Giving feedback is an intimate human exchange that can strengthen relationships and create an opportunity for everyone’s growth.
A Mediator’s Guide to Effective Feedback
- Provide positive feedback at least as frequently as negative. We grow not just by doing less of what isn’t working, but also by doing more of what is working.
- Be curious. When sharing difficult feedback, don’t think of it as "telling." Reframe it in your mind as the act of entering a learning conversation about something that doesn’t seem to be working as well as it might.
- Don’t use the "sandwich" approach, putting the tough news between two tender, positive pieces of feedback. Sandwiching diminishes the positive feedback, which the receiver perceives you used only to soften the blow.
- Don’t presume you know what the person intended by her actions or words. Instead, discuss the impact.
- Avoid generalized, sweeping statements. Give specific examples and make them behavioral (observing the behavior, not the personality trait you think is associated).
- Feedback does not need to include suggestions. It’s more important to describe the behavior that’s problematic or positive and assist the other person with reflecting on what might be done differently.
- Feedback is more effective when provided regularly. Providing feedback only during evaluation periods has limited impact on performance.
And perhaps most importantly, be humble. At the end of the day, we’re all imperfect beings struggling to live our lives with a little grace.