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helpful feedback

Have you ever given someone what you thought was helpful feedback only to be surprised by a less-than-positive reaction?

We’ve all been taught that feedback—both the giving and the receiving—is the breakfast of champions. Right? So, when we share that breakfast with someone and the sharing falls flat, it’s not uncommon to blame the recipient for being unwilling to hear the truth.

That very well may be true. Experts tell us that “people avoid feedback because they hate being criticized.” Psychologists say that negative news triggers the inbred flight or fight reaction.

However, how many of us have honestly examined our motives and methods to discover if we contributed to the poor reception that our feedback received?

Robert Sutton, an organizational psychologist at Stanford University, observes that “we’re remarkably incompetent at understanding how we affect other people.” To assess if our methods and motives played a role in blunting the effectiveness of our feedback, here’s five questions we can ask ourselves.

Ask 5 questions for delivering helpful feedback


1) Did I make the feedback all about me?

Icky feedback: Your incessant whining about how bad things are around here annoys me.

Not icky feedback: I share your concerns about the quality of our workplace. I hope you’re aware of how people here look to you as an informal leader. If you could use that ability and work with people to make change, I’m betting you could make a positive difference around here.

Feedback really isn’t feedback if the message is all about us. Feedback is meant to help or praise the other person, so keeping the focus on them is an important element to keep in mind.

2) Did I do my homework before offering feedback?

I was in a personal development mastermind group. One of the ground rules was to write out our issue, identify the assistance we wanted, and share this information ahead of time. When my time to receive feedback rolled around, one participant said she hadn’t read my materials but still had some thoughts she wanted to share with me. Her input wasn’t helpful because it wasn’t applicable to my situation.

Feedback is a gift. We have to take the time to make ours the best possible gift by being grounded in the facts before we offer advice.

3) Did I expect the recipient to be grateful because I shared my expertise with them?

My off-point feedback provider was a tad miffed by my “thank you for sharing, but your input isn’t going to work for me” response. She doubled down and pointed out all the success she had had in doing what she was telling me to do.

We can’t expect our feedback to be well-received if we haven’t taken the time to gain familiarity with what the other person is experiencing.

Additionally, if our feedback is negative and/or unsolicited, it requires someone with high self-awareness and a degree of humility to respond with grace and openness. We have to remember that not everyone is at that level of personal development and must be willing to meet them where they are.

4) Did I provide enough information in my feedback?

Icky feedback: You were really rude to Jonelle in that meeting.

Not icky feedback: In yesterday’s staff meeting, I saw you roll your eyes several times when Jonelle was speaking. You also interrupted her three times. Because she’s the only woman on our team, wrong messages are being sent about her value to the team.

To minimize defensiveness and define specific performance to change, make your feedback meaningful and concrete. How can you do that? By using facts and observable actions to explain the situation, the behaviors involved, and their impacts.

5) In sharing my feedback, might I have come across as dogmatic or self-righteous?

We live in polarizing times in which social norms about declaring the rightness of our position and the wrongness of another’s are wobbling. Feedback delivered without respect and civility does more harm than good.

Icky feedback: Stop talking so much about change. Tradition is a big deal around here, and you have to get onboard with that.

Not icky feedback: As I listened to what you just said about your proposed project being turned down, I sensed your frustration with how slow things are to change. Stability and consistency are important to the owners. They want to preserve their father’s legacy. That being said, change is necessary. If you could just show them how a little innovation can make that legacy better, I bet they’ll be more open to listen to your ideas.

True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes. ~Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and winner, Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

If we’re genuinely interested in helping the recipient of our feedback, we’re thoughtful about what we say and how we say it. and take ourselves, our motivations, and our wants out of the way.


Image credit before quote added: Pixabay