Last week I met with a client facing a very common dilemma: how do I give constructive feedback without zapping motivation? Feedback can be a delicate topic, one many of us would rather avoid. Who doesn’t have bad memories of feedback conversations gone awry?
Luckily, I learned from a master. One of my teachers in graduate school was so skilled at giving feedback, I’d walk away feeling as if I’d been given a gift. She spoke with such care, compassion, clarity, and ownership, there was no question she was trying to help me—not punish me. Wouldn’t it be great to have others consider your feedback a gift?
The following 10 steps will help you to give constructive feedback like a pro:
1. Choose your timing carefully.
Consider the best time for a conversation—from your perspective and theirs. Make sure you build in space to think through what you want to say so it comes across well—a hasty conversation could make matters worse and leave you with a lot of cleaning up to do!
Then, let the other person know you want to share some feedback and ask when’s the best time; some people appreciate immediate feedback while others need to prepare themselves mentally. By respecting their needs, the conversation is likely to begin on the right foot.
2. Set clear intentions.
Ask yourself why you need to give this feedback. What’s in it for you, for them, and for the company? What difference does it make if they listen and act? For example: “Jane, I know one of your long-term goals is to be promoted to Vice President. I’m really invested in your success and I want to do whatever I can to help you. One of the things I’ve noticed may be getting in your way is…”
3. Stick to the facts.
What did you actually hear, smell, or see? What would a video camera tell you? A video camera would say that a person walked into a meeting 10 minutes after the start time, but it couldn’t say why. There’s nothing worse than hearing feedback-laden with judgments based on a person’s interpretation of events. Example: “It really bothers me that you’re not as committed to this team as the rest of us are.” Versus: “I noticed you were 10 minutes late to our quarterly review meeting, and I found myself wondering if you’re as committed to this team as the rest of us?” Separate fact from fiction.
4. Own your judgments.
It’s OK to have judgments … we all do. The important thing is to notice them, hold them lightly, don’t consider them facts, and remain open to the possibility that another explanation exists. Ask yourself, “What’s an entirely different way to look at this?” There’s an old adage I often remind myself of: “The story I tell myself about you says more about me.”
5. Give a specific suggestion.
Sometimes people don’t know what they don’t know. In other words, they may understand the feedback but not know how to correct their behavior. Tell them. Example: “When you speak more slowly, I can follow your message better. I notice you’re more articulate when you’ve taken adequate time to prepare, so it would be a good idea to build that prep time into your schedule when you know you have an important meeting coming up.”
6. Check in with them.
There are two sides to every story. Leave openings in your feedback to hear from the other person. Pause periodically and ask if they’re seeing it the same way or if they understand the impact of whatever it is they’re doing or failing to do. Example: “I just said a lot here and I know you probably have a perspective of your own. Can you share it with me?”
7. Revisit after they’ve digested.
It’s important to circle back to the person, usually a day or a week later, to see if there’s anything that needs revisiting—especially when conversations get heated or take on an uncomfortable vibe. Ask what they took away from the feedback and if they have any questions now that they’ve had some time to think. Don’t leave difficult conversations hanging. Showing that you care about their thoughts and feelings won’t imply you take it back, nor will it devalue your message.
8. Make feedback a habit.
Feedback is more likely to be perceived as a reprimand if it’s delivered infrequently. Make it a part of your regular routine (and, of course, on an “as needed” basis) and it will become much more comfortable not just for them, but for you, too. Build your feedback muscles!
9. Acknowledge progress.
Be sure to recognize when people shift behavior. It feels good to know someone is noticing your efforts rather than continually asking you do more and be better. Don’t forget to balance the negative critique with some positive praise. Shoot for a ratio of 5 positives for every 1 negative … and remember that this only works if it’s genuine!
10. Be authentic.
This is the MOST important step of all. If you don’t genuinely have a sense of goodwill in your heart when you deliver feedback, it’s unlikely to go well or be effective. And if you’re out to slam someone as opposed to help them, then your efforts will be totally wasted. Take the time to find a caring and respectful place in your heart for the person receiving the feedback. See things through their eyes, listen to them and stay true to your own message.
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Michelle “Mitch” Shepard is the Founder & Creative Force behind WiRL Leadership Summit, an online event for professional women seeking career success and personal fulfillment. An executive coach, facilitator, and leader herself, Mitch knows firsthand what it takes to succeed in today’s business world, and is eager to help women accomplish their professional and personal goals.