Making an Impact with Feedback

Ever watch one of the talent, dance or voice reality shows? As a guilty pleasure, I’ve seen them all at one point and after every performance a panel of celebrity judges gives the performer feedback. Each judge has their own style and some have become infamous (think Simon Cowell and his no-mince opinions and harsh tones). From my perspective, some judges are better than others at structuring and expressing their feedback.  The objective should be for the performer to understand what they did well or not so well, what they could do better, and take the advice given. Likewise, there are key guidelines for the person giving feedback to do so effectively. All that said, because we are not machines with a completely objective feedback loop, as humans, we need to factor in that there will be an emotional component to manage no matter whether we are the giver or receiver of feedback.

Giving and receiving feedback can be a vulnerable exercise. Having the courage to speak up about something that affects you in a (personal or professional) relationship with someone can be challenging. You may feel afraid or anxious or nervous. Or maybe you find you speak forthrightly or directly and discover the other person’s reaction leaves you dissatisfied. Regardless of the potential tension or conflict or problem, I recommend you find a way that works for you to say it anyway. You’ll know you are on the right track to speaking up because you will have recognized that without doing so the relationship is adversely impacted.  

Through my personal experiences and the conflict resolution work I do I acknowledge that the reward is greater for releasing the tension and beginning to look at solving the problem. I find the longer I hold onto the tension which is my thoughts, reactions and stories that I begin to spin and tell myself, the higher the chance it will escalate as time goes on. The mind has a funny way of doing that. Instead, I view the exchange of feedback as an opportunity to learn something about myself and the other person. As my perspective expands, I can start to repair the relationship issues. 

So how can we give feedback with the greatest chance of being heard and not escalate the tension and conflict in our relationships? Here are specific actions and tips for handling it well emotionally.

1. Find the right moment to offer feedback.

To make sure the recipient will be able to hear it without feeling blindsided, I find it best to ask them if they are open to feedback first. This sets them up emotionally to listen and gives them a chance to say “no” if it is a terrible time. I find that most people’s curiosity promotes a “yes” when asked.

2. Be clear about the specific behavior or action that you noticed.

Feedback is ineffective when the person receiving it leaves with no clue about what they did in particular to create a reaction. If someone tells me simply that I annoyed them or that they are upset with me and they want me to treat them better in the future, my first question is, “About what?”  Prepare a clear statement or two with details of timing and specific action or what was said.  “Yesterday, when you told me you were going to be late with your part of the project, I felt upset.” Now the recipient has some context and data for further assessment and discussion.

3. Be clear about the impact it had on you, on the person, on the team, or anyone else it affected.

This is the golden nugget and what is most often left out when giving feedback. A statement about impact shows vulnerability and gives the other person a chance to connect to you and to realize how they were perceived. It offers reflection for how they might want to behave differently in the future if they didn’t realize they had nor want to create that impact. Also, to be most effective emotionally, I try to give the benefit of the doubt that they were unaware of their behavior and the affect it was having and remove the story that they maliciously intended to hurt me. This keeps my tone from being angry or accusatory and allows some space for there to be other information and perspectives in this situation.

A sample impact statement is, “The delay in receiving your part of the project means that I have to put in extra hours this week and ask others on the team to do so to meet our deadline. As a project manager, my performance review is negatively affected by missed deadlines and that impacts my ability to enhance my career.”

4. Be clear about what actions or behaviors would work better in the future.

By giving them something specific that you ask them to do in the future gives them more information for what would work and you don’t leave it to them to figure out. It gives them the opportunity to agree to the request or to discuss what is problematic and what would work instead.  Either way, you want to get agreement for something different in the future. For example, “Next time, I ask that you track your progress and if you think you might delay on your end, please come up with another solution yourself to meet deadlines or talk to me and we can try to solve the problem together before it happens.”

Making clear requests, having discussion and getting agreement begin to build trust in the relationship. When you see the action happening it gives you a chance to give positive feedback next time. It also provides you with something to measure against if the undesirable behavior is their pattern, so you can address it more quickly if repeated.

If you put yourself in the habit of including these four steps, you should see an earlier inclination to raise things when tensions arise, improved results in your difficult conversations, and enhanced relationships overall.

Lastly, while I’ve focused on negative feedback because it is often the scarier of the two, positive feedback is as important to give on an ongoing basis. In fact, research says give four times more positive than negative, so make sure you also share observations of behaviors well done and positive impacts. The same steps apply for sharing it effectively. In the spirit of another American Idol judge, Randy Jackson, try something a little bit more substantive than “yo Dawg! Good job!”

Have you had difficulty giving feedback? What particular issues do you find challenging? And how have you done so effectively? Share your comments with us.



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