By: Josh Sloat
Why do we stink at giving feedback?
Giving feedback is hard … really hard ... because we tend to focus more on the criticism and less on the human receiving it. As a giver of feedback, we must learn to separate these and deliver our message in a more emotionally friendly manner.
Humans are highly emotional creatures and receiving feedback puts us in a highly vulnerable position. If navigated without awareness and sensitivity, feedback often leads to an emotional response. It’s well understood by psychologists that our brain’s emotional muscle is far more dominant than its objective counterpart. Once engaged – especially in a negative manner – any logical, constructive conversation immediately becomes an impossible journey.
So, how do we keep the balance tipped to the side of objectivity, logic, and reason? As with most communication, it comes down to focus and framing.
Separate the person from the product
We get highly invested in our work. We pour ourselves into it, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. But we are not our work. Our product is not our person. As both givers and receivers of feedback, it can be hard to separate the critique of the work from the critique of the person. And the second we feel personally criticized, we default to going on the defensive. What follows becomes a defense of self, rather than a constructive conversation about iterating on a work product. The person should never be the direct object of the feedback. Instead, the focus should be the work or the product. You’ll immediately lose your audience with “You’ve written some terribly inefficient code”, but end up with a better product and relationship by expressing, “This code could be more efficient with the use of X sorting algorithm”.
We are not our work. Our product is not our person.
Word choice is also critical. Certain words, regardless of their direction, are defense triggers. They come loaded with far too much negative context to ever be used in a constructive conversation. “It’s weird that you x…”, “It’s sloppy to have y…” “It seems lazy to have z…”. Weird. Sloppy. Lazy. That’s all the recipient hears or reads. Anything that follows goes into the mental shredder, and the shields go up. It’s far better to simply suggest alternatives or turn the feedback into a dialog by inquiring why the recipient chose X over Y.
Sell your idea instead of criticizing the original
Rather than focusing your feedback on why the original work was wrong or lacking, instead focus on selling why your idea makes it better. Instead of saying, “It’s odd that you chose to omit x”, instead reframe it and say, “I think your message could be stronger by including y”. In doing this, you’re partnering to make the work product better. Whenever you can, use persuasion over criticism. The result is the same, but it's a more collaborative approach and is far less likely to put the recipient on the defensive.
Ask a question
A close cousin to selling your idea is asking a question. Rather than leading with an assumptive statement, consider asking a question. At worst, you’re correct. At best, you might learn something new. “Have you considered using X approach? I like what you did here, but I am wondering whether X would be more effective for the use case.” You create an immediate opportunity for collaborative communication, improving the situation as a team. Tip: just proceed with some caution on this one – all too easy to accidentally slip in a condescending tone.
Remove yourself from the equation
This is more geared to managerial and mentorship scenarios, but it can also be effective to remove yourself from feedback. When you give feedback like, “Your use of x language was incredibly offensive and rubbed me the wrong way”, you’re inserting yourself directly into the situation, putting the recipient in a position where they will immediately feel like they need to defend their words or actions to you. No growth will follow. It’s far better to side step and say something like, “I just wanted to give you some feedback about a conversation yesterday. Use of words like X can be offensive to some and we’d all be better to be sensitive to that.” Land the point for a better tomorrow, but remove the need to defend in the moment.
Land the point for a better tomorrow, but remove the need to defend in the moment.
Nobody wants to feel like they’re the only one who’s ever crashed the site or lost a big sale. Again, that isolation breeds emotions that will block what should be a great learning opportunity. Before diving into what went wrong or what should’ve been done differently, first pad with some humility. “Look, we’ve all done this a million times ….”. “Losing a new client after investing that much can be emotionally exhausting. Ask me how I know.” “Crashing the site is pretty much a right of passage …” Shields down. Proceed with growth.
Highlight the positives
Someone just put a lot of energy into breathing a thing into existence, so your initial response shouldn’t be dumping all over it. Always focus first on what’s great about the work. You can’t remove emotion from the situation, but you can make sure that the initial emotions are positive ones, putting the recipient into what will hopefully be a more receptive and creative mood.
Don’t own the feedback
Don’t forget you’re also an emotional creature. Hard as it may be to imagine, you might not be right. Your feedback might not be the answer. You may have overlooked something. Feedback should be a dialog, rather than a monologue. Remember, you’re collaborating to evolve the work product, so don’t get caught up in owning your ideas.
Feedback should be a dialog, rather than a monologue.
The Greatest Gift
Feedback can and should be a wonderful gift. It’s ultimately a vehicle for growth and improved execution – a rising tide if you will, but it must be properly focused and framed. This doesn’t come easy for many, it’s highly situationally dependent, and it takes a lot of practice. You’ll surely trip along the way and end up chewing on a foot or two, but the eventual payoffs are worth the investment. Just ask me how I know ;)
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Ashley Sloat, Ph.D.
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