Feedback – Giving and Receiving

This page is a write up of advice I’m often asked about giving and receiving feedback, and how to make it a fundamental part of your life. I’ll update it from time to time.

Why give feedback, anyway?

Let’s imagine you have a job filling buckets of water from a tap without them overflowing. To effectively fill the buckets, you need feedback to see how much water is in them. If you don’t have feedback – you can’t see, hear or feel the buckets – you won’t do a good job.

All kinds of feedback are just more complex variants of filling buckets. Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that that without feedback we are blind and so we won’t consistently do a good job.

Feedback can come from our own observations, but here I will focus on feedback provided by other people. We can extend the bucket filling so that the buckets are in a hidden place, but someone else is watching them and can tell us when to turn the tap.

Feedback from other people helps us to be less blind. With a regular, consistent feedback setup we can tune our behavior – to be better – metaphorically filling our buckets quickly without overflow.

If feedback is so essential why is it hard?

Getting and giving feedback can be hard, because our brains can react quite strongly to feedback. Oh no! We have a tendency to get defensive, our pulse races, and in extreme situations, we might slam doors or even shoot each other. None of which results in well-filled buckets.

As we cannot change our brains, we have to work with them. It is vital we all acknowledge that we can get sad, angry, and other strong feelings when we hear feedback – sometimes no matter how nicely it’s phrased. And that equally, we can cause these feelings to pop up – even when we don’t mean to.

All the rest of this page looks at ways for both the giver and receiver of the feedback to minimize the bad stuff our brains can do when we’re just trying to do a good job.

πŸΈπŸŽ‘πŸ’ <- lizard brain and mammal brain trying to control the ship

On giving feedback πŸ’Œ

When giving feedback, these rules will set you up for success.

  • Feedback must only be given when invited. If you want to give but it’s not invited, ask “may I give some feedback” – and be prepared accept no as an answer.
  • Feedback should be specifically asked. E.g. “can you give me some feedback on my latest work’s readability?”
  • Feedback should be specifically and thoughtfully answered. Consider which you are expressing, and express it with integrity – be sure to note if it’s advice, an opinion, or praise.
  • Give feedback from a place of respect. Go in knowing you probably don’t have the full picture, as an equal, with a point of view that you may not find agreement on.
  • Work hard to find a positive way to word your feedback “You’re quiet” -> “Your ideas are great, can you share them more often?”
  • Before feedback starts, establish a common framework. E.g. “are we all agreed that we will meet for half an hour, to discuss the error encountered on 12 May, without any personal blame, and in the understanding that this is a constructive process driven by a desire to do better together?”

When expressing feedback, establish that all feedback must be:

  • Open. Open means negotiable.
  • Positive. Not a punishment. That just creates more conflict.
  • Concrete. Clear, precise requests. Specifics. Recent examples.
  • Measurable. Think a bit like KPIs. What, where, when
  • Realistic. Possible with current resource
  • Immediate. They can be implemented right now (aka actionable)

On asking for feedback πŸ”“πŸ™

Asking for feedback is tricky. Asking for positive feedback rarely results in good feedback. Same with asking for critical (negative) feedback! Instead of asking for a kind of result (positive/negative), ask specifically what you want feedback on and then co-create an ideal. For example:

  • What’s an ideal level of management?
  • What’s an ideal level of oversight?
  • What’s the best way to make team decisions?

Then you can objectively review and comment on the mixture of ongoing positives/negatives, as well as how they might be improved.

On receiving feedback πŸ‘‚

Always thank people for feedback, even if you don’t agree. Giving feedback is hard.

Be patient, and understanding of how hard it is to express feedback. Rarely is feedback ill intended – even apparently horrible feedback! Be prepare to dig in to identify the underlying concern.

Rephrase feedback – ideally with different words – to check there is a shared understanding. Even if you agree with what you heard, it might be wrong!

On receiving unwelcome feedback πŸ’ͺ

Sometimes, we hear things we don’t want to hear. Quite often, actually!

Stop, breathe, think (take time!), respond mindfully.

Most unwelcome feedback falls into three categories:

  1. The feedback is true but hurts you. Maybe you think of yourself as the best muffin chef, and the feedback is that your muffins are always dry.
  2. The feedback is a subjective perspective – one that is true, but not necessarily relevant. Maybe this one person really likes moist muffins.
  3. The feedback is just wrong. Maybe this person ate a stale muffin, or a muffin they thought was yours but wasn’t.

For all of these, the reaction you probably feel is “I don’t want to know this!”. That’s ok – but, this person is trying to tell you something and it may be valuable. Thank them (as usual) but then express that the feedback is unexpected. Try to figure out which of the 3 likely causes it is. If it’s case 2 or 3, the answers are simple – clarification and “agree to disagree”. If it’s 1, it might still be very hard to hear, but it may also be some of the most valuable feedback you can get. Maybe your muffins are dry, and one simple trick can elevate your muffin game to world class levels!

On receiving toxic feedback πŸ’ͺπŸ›‘

There is a fourth case of unwelcome feedback: toxic feedback. Toxic feedback is not really feedback at all, it’s toxicity bundled in a package labeled “feedback”. Toxic feedback can feel like unwelcome feedback, but comes repeatedly and rarely resolves as one of the three cases above. Toxic feedback is usually ignorant, aggressive or venting behavior- none of which are acceptable. So what can you do if you get some toxic feedback?

First up: you can leave: politely excuse yourself if needed. This is usually the best course of action. Here are some cheat phrases that work in most cases without burning any bridges:

  • “I can’t see your point, but I am trying to understand.”
  • “I want to hear your feedback, but we’re not making any progress right now. Let’s take a breather and come back to this later.”

Remember that usually toxicity is not intentional. This can be very, very hard to believe, but always try a few times before labelling feedback as intentionally toxic. If you get repeated toxic feedback from a person, that person likely has some unresolved problem – one that is probably not you. In such a case, it may quantify as bullying, and you should take the steps necessary to protect yourself from their behavior.

General tips on giving and receiving feedback

  • Feedback cannot be “good” if trust is low to start with. Trust is the foundation for a building a lots-of-feedback culture. It’s a bit of a chicken-egg problem, as feedback builds trust, but if trust is low, try to do things where feedback is very easy, like playing co-op games together.
  • Check all assumptions! Both positive and negative. (try “I heard you say I’m not good at…”)
  • Try Non-violent communication. Observations, feelings, needs, requests.
  • Try the SBI model, a specialization of NVC. Situation-Behavior-Impact.
  • Good feedback should have impact. Consider what impact you want to have, and how best to achieve that by feedback.
  • Try to created self-directed and feed-forward feedback. “What are you doing well at the moment?” “What will you do differently next time?” Then the person can start to measure their own performance and grow.
  • If you’re not sure, frame your feedback: “I’m not sure how to word this”
  • Feedback is best received from trusted, respected people (subject specific, too). For example, getting feedback on how to draw from someone who isn’t a proven artist may undermine the feedback – even if it is correct! The same feedback from a different person can be taken very differently. You can use this to your advantage by stating your credibility – “I was a sketch artist for 5 years…. and I found that holding my pencil like this helped a lot”