How do you handle feedback? Do you feel sweaty and nervous before your appraisal meetings? Do you brood and feel insulted someone found something wrong about you? Do you ever feel so guilty and uncomfortable about giving feedback that you surround the criticism in so many compliments that no one knows what you’re talking about anymore?
Was the feedback ever useful in these scenarios? Or did you hold on to the emotions around it and forget what was said?
Can you remember a time when you received useful feedback? You probably felt safe, trusted your colleague, and you had open and honest communication. You probably came away from that talk with no doubt what the issue was and exactly how you could improve.
In this article, we’ll talk about how we can avoid those confrontational situations and consistently give and receive excellent feedback. You’ll learn how you can set a positive scene for difficult conversations and two feedback models to help ensure the feedback lands as effectively as possible.
Set the stage
Building a positive environment is a crucial first step in determining if feedback is received well or falls flat. Our brains interpret criticism as a threat to our sense of self, and it can have the same emotional effect as an actual threat to our survival. (Buffer has a fantastic article that dives deep into the psychology of this.) Think about the last time you heard, “We need to talk” or, “I need to tell you something.” My heart rate went up just typing that! No matter what you say after those statements, the person you’re talking to is going to feel anxious and defensive.
Trust and Safety
Before your feedback session even starts, you need to establish some basic emotional principles. Both participants – the feedback giver and the feedback recipient – need to feel safe. They need to be able to trust each other, to believe that whatever is said during the feedback session comes from a place of caring and a genuine interest to help and improve. This isn’t the time to be mean and rip your colleague apart. Approach difficult conversations honestly and compassionately. Trying to soften the blow or acting uneasy can make you come off as untrustworthy, and your feedback is less likely to be heard.Approach difficult conversations honestly and compassionately. Trying to soften the blow or acting uneasy can make you come off as untrustworthy, and your feedback is less likely to be heard. Click To Tweet
When you’re giving feedback, use language that’s positive, specific, and forward-thinking. Even if you’re coming from a place of compassion, overwhelming your colleague with negative comments will make her feel defensive. You don’t need to eliminate all negativity or overdo it with positivity, just try to follow up with how your colleague can improve. This can be a suggestion from you or an open-ended question for your colleague to answer for herself. Be sure to think of specific ways she can improve instead of a general “be better.”
Feedback sessions should occur frequently, either at regular intervals or when the situation calls for it. It’s much harder to think of specific issues or ways to improve when the feedback refers to something that happened three months ago. The benefit of regular, frequent feedback is that everyone knows what to expect. That level of trust is built-in, and you do not end up feeling like a misbehaving child caught in the act by their parents.
Take advantage of NLP
There’s an idea in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) that humans all interpret the world through different representational systems, based on our senses. Everyone has one principle representational system that they use to make sense of everything they encounter in the world, like a visual thinker or someone who can learn by ear. We are also subconsciously more inclined to trust and agree with someone with the same primary representational system, or someone who is aligned with how we perceive reality.
You can take advantage of this by giving feedback by learning what representational systems your colleagues use and choosing language that matches that system. For example, for a visual person, you might say, “I can see that you had issues with this specific issue last week. When looking back, what do you think went wrong?” Sue Knight’s NLP at Work is a fantastic resource to learn more about this and well worth a read.
Now that we’ve established a compassionate and effective environment for feedback, we can start thinking about different ways we can deliver that feedback. These methods are helpful if you have no idea how to start an awkward conversation. You can also use them as a starting point and evolve into a more organic dialogue.
Buffer used to have a formalized feedback process called the mastermind, and now it’s evolved from those foundations into something more informal and distributed. Every two weeks, each team member would meet with a team leader. During the feedback session, team members were given 10 minutes to share and celebrate their achievements, 40 minutes to discuss their top challenges, 10 minutes to get feedback from the team leader, and 10 minutes to give feedback to the team leader. They saw the main benefits as removing fear around receiving feedback because it was a regularly scheduled event, and because feedback went both ways, it felt like a sharing process for both people.
First introduced to me by my colleague, Lisa Gill, TIR is a method for receiving feedback. It stands for Thank you, Inquire, and Record (or sometimes Reflect). The idea is that after you receive feedback, even if you initially disagree with it, thank your colleague for caring enough about you to want to help you improve. Assume it’s coming from a positive place. Next, inquire and ask for specific details. Be willing to consider that there’s at least an element of truth in the feedback, but remember, you don’t have to accept all of it at face value.
Finally, record the feedback somewhere, like in a company Slack channel. Or in a notebook where you can come back and regularly review your feedback. If you wish, the final R can stand for reflect instead. Think about the feedback that you received and explore any reactions that might come up. For example, if you have a strong urge to reject what you just heard, it means that the feedback clashed with a core value or belief you have about yourself. Feel free to explore that and what it says about your sense of self.
Like Best, Next Time
Pamela Jett has a system for giving and receiving feedback that leans into the power of forward-thinking. She emphasizes that we need to remember that we can’t change the past, but we can change the future by choosing to change who we are in the present. When you’re talking to your colleague after she makes a mistake, first talk about what you liked best? There’s always at least one good thing in every situation, even if it’s something like not having an emotional breakdown at work. Then discuss with your colleague what she can do differently next time. For example, “Here’s what I like best: you have so many great ideas. Next time, I want you to speak up and share them in meetings.”
These methods can give you an idea of how to get started with giving feedback. Continue having these sessions regularly until you organically find a system that perfectly suits your team. Include positivity and compassion in your team’s values so that everyone can trust that feedback comes from a genuine intention to help each other improve. Use these tips as a foundation, and you’ll come to view giving and receiving feedback with joy rather than dread.Include positivity and compassion in your team's values so that everyone can trust that feedback comes from a genuine intention to help each other improve. Click To Tweet