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The art and science of giving feedback - part 1

Feedback is essential to our learning and growth. So how do we give feedback that is honest, authentic, and helpful to the receiver? And what gets in the way?



This morning I delivered a short webinar on behalf of The Centre on giving and receiving feedback, on this International Women’s Day 2021, where the theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’. I reflected as I was delivering the webinar on the delicious irony in talking about feedback over a webinar format, where one of the most ‘obvious’ forms of feedback – the faces of the audience – was not available! Ah the joys and challenges of working and connecting in a virtual world!


What is feedback?

Of course, feedback is all around us and in difference forms. Essentially, any information we receive about ourselves - and from whatever source – is feedback. It can be formal or informal (the performance review vs the ‘oh by the way…’ type comment), it can be obvious (here’s what I think) or it can be subtle (a wave, a smile, a scowl). It’s important because it’s how we learn about ourselves, how we learn, and how we recalibrate in order to grow.


Developing a feedback culture?

We often think we need to train people in how to give feedback – which of course we do! Because giving feedback is complex and challenging. Unfortunately when we train people to give feedback in the hope that it will create a feedback culture, we forget to train people in how to receive feedback. We only do half the job, and that much hoped for feedback culture doesn’t quite emerge the way we had anticipated.


Perhaps we need to focus more on the push and the pull – not only creating cultures in which we encourage people to give feedback (the push), but encourage people to be open to seeking out feedback (the pull). And in order to do that we may need to help people understand why getting feedback can be so hard!


This was brought into stark reality for me a couple of years back when I was training as a coaching supervisor. Our work on 'giving feedback' in the supervision space didn't start with a model or top tips on how to approach it. Instead, it started with us looking inward, to explore our own relationship with receiving feedback. The thinking behind that session was that in order to give feedback well, we had to understand a) our own feelings about receiving feedback and b) be able to empathise with the person to whom we may be giving feedback. In doing so, we were encouraged to work towards giving feedback that is – to use the phrase of the tutor that day – like a clean sword. That expression has stuck with me vividly ever since!


When I’m working with managers I often hear them say that they are OK with giving positive feedback but are frightened of giving negative feedback. Already we have a mind-set thing going on here – that positive feedback equals good and negative feedback equals bad. It’s in our natures to avoid things that are threatening, so we become fearful that giving ‘negative’ feedback is going to end in conflict – and just don’t do it. So my suggestion is to forget about this binary notion of giving positive and negative feedback. Instead the excellent book Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen suggests we think about feedback in terms of appreciation, growth and evaluation.


Appreciation, Growth, or evaluation?

Appreciation is feedback that is all about the warm and fuzzies. Appreciation is great – it’s what the Transactional Analysis folks would call a positive stroke and it’s essential to our well-being. We need positive strokes. It’s really about embedding a connection, about building a relationship, about motivating someone by telling them that they matter or they make a difference. And you can turn appreciation into something so much more powerful – and helpful – for the receiver simply by being specific about what you are appreciating or valuing in them. So Thank you (pure appreciation) becomes ‘thank you for doing x, it helps me because…’. More information, more helpful to the receiver!


Growth feedback is any feedback that is designed to give someone a sense of what they are doing well, what they could be doing differently, more of, less of. Again, the more specific that feedback, the more helpful it will be. There are some hints and tips around this but the most important rule of thumb here is to avoid ambiguous labels. Rather than using labels such as ‘professional’, ‘communicator’, ‘team player’, which might mean different things to different people, get specific. Give examples. Tell them what you notice. Talk to them about the impact.


Evaluation feedback is about giving someone a sense of where they are against a standard or requirement. For example, when we give someone a grading, or tell them they have passed a particular hurdle, or been given a promotion. This is feedback but it’s feedback with a caveat attached to it. The problem is that sometimes we bill something as one and in reality it’s the other. A development centre for example should be all about growth but often it’s an assessment centre – which is about evaluation – in disguise. In a development context, we should be encouraged to try new things on for size; in an assessment context, we need to show how well we can perform in a specific context. Confusing these two things is not helpful for the participant.


Feedback as a mirror

Feedback is often likened to holding up a mirror to ourselves. However, there is always the issue of what sort of mirror we choose to look in! You may be familiar with the idea of the honest vs the dishonest mirror. There may be days when we are feeling resilient and are good to look in a truly honest mirror that shows us others see us – warts and all! But we may also like to have dishonest mirrors – the ones that give us a softened or kinder look at ourselves. Of course some dishonest mirrors show a truly distorted image, exaggerating things that are there for sure and making them they make them seem so much worse!


Sometimes the most helpful way to see ourselves as others see us is to be filmed or recorded going about our business; once we get over the weirdness of being ‘on camera’ this can really lead to wonderful self-awareness. I’ve certainly had to do this on many occasions: when first training as a psychologist many moons ago, then as a facilitator, and ongoing as part of my coaching training and cpd. It can be brutal in its honesty, but handled well, this experience gives us perfect feedback and enables us toreally hone in our leaky behaviours and blind spots. We get to see our own face – what we do with it; our hands – how much we wave them about; the words we stumble over – etc. In the absence of having a video recorder to hand, having someone whom you trust implicitly observe you and give you detailed feedback on what they noticed is a decent substitute.


In a way, anyone who has spent the last year on Zoom has possibly faced the oddness of seeing themselves as others see them ALL of the time. It can be terribly distracting and you may have opted for the ‘hide self view’ option; but there are times when I deliberately keep my self-view there, not because I particularly enjoy looking at myself (!) but because that little glimpse of myself in the corner of my eye reminds me of my leaky face and body language, and how incredibly stern I can look when I don’t smile. Feedback in its purest form!


In a few days, I will write some more on this subject – with a particular focus on the particular things that can get triggered when we receive feedback - but in the meantime have a think about the following:


What is your relationship to giving feedback?

What is your relationship to receiving feedback?

What is the most helpful feedback you’ve received recently?

What are your thoughts on the need for feedback to be like a ‘clean sword’?


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