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Giving and Receiving Feedback

Giving and Receiving Feedback Effectively

Giving and Receiving Feedback Effectively

Giving any kind of feedback (and particularly where it is negative or critical in some way) is a tricky task at the best of times—which is why we so often avoid doing it. Handled badly, a few comments that are meant to be helpful can easily become destructive.

We’re often reluctant to give feedback or, as some might say, ‘constructive criticism’. Sometimes it’s because we’re concerned about hurting the other person’s feelings. But even if we don’t deliver our feedback in specific words, our behavior tends to give the game away—a critical look or avoiding contact for example. The difficulty then is that the other person knows you disapprove but doesn’t know why or what to do about it. So rather than hinting or hoping the other person picks up clues, it’s usually much better to be clear and express your feedback in full but also in the most helpful way possible.

Questions to ask before giving feedback

Before you begin any conversation, effective feedback giving (which applies just as much when you are on the feedback receiving end of course) involves asking the following questions:

  1. Is this the right time and place? Feedback is best delivered out of the hearing range of other people and when the receiver is not under pressure. So there may be times when it’s best to leave the conversation for later. But don’t delay for too long. Feedback is most effective when delivered while the behavior to be discussed is still fresh in your mind and the receiver’s.
  2. Will the other person find the feedback useful? If the feedback can’t be used by the other person to improve, why say it? Be careful not to give feedback when its only purpose is to make you feel superior or give you a target for your personal frustration.
  3. Do you have the right information? If you offer feedback based on incomplete or inaccurate information (or just hearsay or gossip), it’s unlikely to be effective. It will also be seen as gratuitous and disrespectful.
  4. Does the feedback help the other person see him or herself more clearly? This is best done through a conversation rather than being delivered as a lecture. Hence, rather than jumping straight in, you should ideally explain what you’d like to talk about. Most of us bristle at the prospect of criticism, so it is also important to take care to reassure the other person that you’re not ‘getting at them’ but trying to help. In simple terms, this means taking the following approach:
    1. Describe the behavior. Be specific, rather than putting someone down or being vague—state the facts as you see them.
    2. Avoid loaded terms which produce emotional reactions and raised defenses. Use tentative words instead like ‘sometimes’ and ‘perhaps’ rather than ‘always’ or ‘never’. For example, if you say to someone ‘you’re always late’, he or she can avoid the central issue by arguing that ‘always’ is not strictly true.
    3. Explain the consequences of the action or behavior you have observed. You also need to describe what happened as a result. Again, the key is to stick to the facts, rather than sit in judgment. For example, you may say “when you cut Jenny off before she finishes talking in meetings, she feels less likely to offer any input.”
    4. Build on the other person’s strengths. You can often help the other person keep the feedback in perspective by including positive comments about their overall behavior.
    5. Invite the other person to respond. Think of feedback as a way of helping people to explore their behavior and see for themselves what needs to be done. You should resist the temptation to tell them directly what they should or shouldn’t do. The usual response to direct advice is often rejection, resentment, denial or argument.

The importance of conveying real and valid observations

An effective feedback giver has to have not only good communication skills and to carefully follow a process such as the one described above but has to have a range of methods and styles by which to offer feedback on performance as and when appropriate. A large part of this feedback giving skill is the ability to give people highly concrete and specific examples to help them to understand what they may do to improve in the future. The following three steps are some of the ways in which to keep your feedback focused and specific:

  1. Stick to the facts when offering feedback. Don’t speculate on motives, conscious or subconscious, and don’t try to be a mind-reader.
  2. Keep your voice in a level range. Don’t allow it to go out of control with loud volume and wildly changing pitch. Keep calm at all times.
  3. Don’t use extreme or loaded words. Don’t say “crisis” when “situation” will do. Don’t say “ineptness” or “incompetence” when “mistake” will do. Don’t say “terrible” or “pathetic” when “unacceptable” will do.

Of course, all of the above takes practice and is a communication ‘art’ to develop over time.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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One Comment

  1. Melissa WestMay 23, 2013 at 3:06 am

    Very helpful article.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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