Giving and receiving feedback

January 15, 2018

Recently I gave a brief lightning talk in our regular Friday all-hands meeting on how to give and receive feedback effectively. Whilst some of it was based on my previous experiences, most of it was pulled together from a few sources and people who have influenced me.

These are the notes from the presentation.


Why is feedback important?

By providing each other with useful and more productive feedback we can help those around us. To do that effectively we can view giving and receiving feedback as another skill which can be learnt and improved-upon with practice (much like any skill when viewed with a Growth Mindset).

Personal growth and continuous improvement - Feedback prevents us from getting stuck and discouraged by showing us what we do correctly already and where we need to develop to get better. In that sense it’s a great enabler of change and provides us with a path forwards.

Failure happens - We will get things wrong from time to time, we will assume things incorrectly and we will communicate in ways which are confusing and possibly impolite for others. The only way to make sure we don’t continue making the same mistakes is to get feedback and invest the time in asking and learning about how others experience working with you.

Confidence and performance - When done well, feedback is a really simple method for building confidence and having a positive impact on the performance and mentality of the person receiving it.

How can we give effective feedback?

Be specific - Focus on behaviours and not on the person or their personality. Use real examples, real scenarios and talk about the behaviours you observed and their impact on you or others.

Timely and relevant - It’s better to give feedback as close to the observed behaviour occurring as possible. That way it’s easier for both parties to relate to and action. That doesn’t mean provide that feedback immediately, for example; if the observed behaviour occurs in public during a heated conversation, let that conversation come to an end and talk to the person in private afterwards, which brings us nicely on to the next point.

Make it a two-way conversation and ideally do it in private - Both people need to be in a comfortable environment and on mutual ground to talk openly and honestly, it’s far from ideal to have those kinds of conversations in earshot of other people.

Make it positive/constructive - “Negative” feedback is absolutely OK but you need to avoid just criticising or complaining. Try and put a more constructive / positive spin on it. Phrasing is important here, you don’t want it to come across like an attack so focusing on a behaviour or a specific event can really help.

Assumptions - It’s very likely that you don’t have all the information, so it’s best to assume that the person was doing what they thought was correct at the time with the information they had. You can use phrases like “I’m sure I’m making a lot of assumptions but…” or “One of the things I want to help with is…”. These help by admitting we might be wrong and yet still share something just to get it out there in the open.

What can we do better when receiving feedback?

Listen carefully and acknowledge - The person giving the feedback needs to experience two things from the receiver. 1, that they’ve been understood and 2, that they’ve had some form of value. So listen carefully, avoid getting defensive and try to show you have understood them. Also express appreciation, it’s more than OK to say thanks (this is not an easy situation for either of you).

Clarify details - If you are having a hard time understanding what is being said, seek clarification. Ask for specific examples using questions like “What can I do differently?” Or “Do you have a more specific example?”. This helps to move people away from their judgement of a situation and hopefully surface the observed behaviours.

Share your context - People are likely to jump to the wrong conclusions and, if you have one, it’s OK to offer a more complete picture. That in itself is a very useful outcome of an open conversation.

These first three tips for receiving feedback are about being more prepared to receive it in a less than ideal manner and how best to unpack it so it’s more useful. The following are more general bits of advice.

It’s OK to disagree - Having said all of the above it’s still fine to disagree. You don’t have to take everything on board, it’s your choice. And as the person giving feedback, we shouldn’t have a predetermined expectation that the receiver will take action.

Specific feedback - If you’re looking for specific feedback then set some constraints before the conversation. For example, “I’m looking to take on more responsibility in this area of the business, can you provide some feedback or guidance around how I might do this?”. It’s best to do this before the conversation to give the other person a chance to prepare this type feedback.

Get comfortable with failure - Embrace failure (because it will almost certainly happen) and make the most of the learning opportunity in front of you.

Tips when preparing feedback

Firstly, it’s best to prepare some feedback in advance of a feedback session if possible. The more prepared both participants are the more value both people will get from the discussion.

I like, I wish - Behaviours you like and behaviours you wish to see more of.

More of, less of, start doing, stop doing and keep doing - It’s a classic retrospective format but useful here too, this is mentioned in this excellent feedback booklet. The rest of Pat Kua’s blog is well worth a look as well, there’s even more great advice on feedback.

Start, stop, continue - Another retrospective format which works well here too.

Compliment sandwich - With this you can give more negative/constructive feedback and then follow it up with much more positive feedback.

There’s loads of options to prepare and structure feedback so find whatever works best for you.