The correct way of giving and receiving feedback

Feedback is a wonderful tool that if used constructively, can open doors to amazing possibilities

Illustration for giving and receiving feedback

Feedback is the food for progress and, while it may not always taste great, it’s healthy for you. The feedback you receive is free information about you and whether you want to take it on board or not is up to you. But look at it not as criticism but as a service by the person who’s giving you feedback, as it makes you aware of your blind spots. The information helps you get a different perspective on your actions/behaviour/attitude.

Similarly, providing constructive feedback to others strengthens your relationship with the people concerned as it helps them tap into their personal potential.

According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, when faced with a challenging goal, people’s motivation to improve their productivity increases up to 60 per cent when they receive feedback on their progress. Assigning goals without giving feedback doesn’t leave much of an effect on motivation with an increase in performance of just over 25 per cent.

Do you receive feedback well?

Most of us can’t handle feedback well. We get embarrassed even when someone gives us a positive feedback [compliment]. If the feedback is negative, we see it as criticism and get upset and defensive. Actually, much depends on the way feedback is delivered. I too have been guilty of not receiving feedback in the right sense. I have felt patronised when someone has delivered feedback. However, the key skill here is to see beyond the delivery technique and focus on the quality of the message. It’s free information.

The challenge in receiving feedback with an open mind and learning from it is that we have to disregard our natural instinct to defend ourselves or our actions. Remember, as former first lady of America Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Tips for receiving feedback the right way

Here are tips to help you accept feedback with grace.

1. Keep an open mind

It’s easy to think that people are trying to criticise us or put us down. When someone approaches you with feedback, don’t immediately put your guard up: be open to what the person has to say—you could learn something valuable.

2. Be a person in progress

We don’t know everything about ourselves and that’s where another’s viewpoint helps. They can teach us so much. If each of us works on the premise that ‘I am a person in progress and always will be’, then feedback is food for personal growth.

3. Listen carefully

When receiving feedback, really listen to the message that you are being given rather than listening to your own spin on it in your head. Sometimes we can distort important messages by not listening properly or openly to what is being said.

4. Check for understanding

If you are not clear about what someone is telling you, ask questions to clarify.

5. Set objectives

When someone gives you feedback that you feel is useful, set some clear objectives. This will help you fully capitalise on the information you receive. If you want, you can even discuss ideas and suggestions on improvement with the person who has given you the feedback.

6. Keep a record

I have found that keeping a little notebook with me to note down the feedback I receive, really helps me grow as person.

7. Seek out feedback opportunities

Some of the most successful people I have come across actively seek honest feedback when they have done something. The more feedback you experience, the better you will get at receiving it.

8. Thank the messenger

It takes effort and courage to give feedback. So, when someone has taken the time and energy to give you information that will potentially benefit you, it is good manners to thank them for it.

Giving constructive feedback

Giving feedback isn’t just a great way to help those around you perform better and achieve more, it is a way to help them to tap into their full potential and discover aspects about themselves that they weren’t even aware off. Still, some people find it challenging to give feedback and get uncomfortable giving it even when it is positive. Here are some common barriers to giving feedback:

Barriers to giving feedback

  1. It is time consuming
  2. Unsure about the right way of delivering feedback
  3. Fear that the feedback maybe misconstrued
  4. Inability to handle the person’s reaction to feedback
  5. Fear of hurting other people’s feelings

I learnt several years ago that a good approach is to tell someone what they did and explain the effect it had on you. Then, if the feedback is negative, help them to explore alternative ways of doing the same thing, and if positive encourage the person to continue doing it. Also, feedback is well-received when it’s a balance of positive and negative. Sometimes at the workplace or in close relationships, we spend a lot of time focusing on what someone isn’t doing well and not enough time celebrating the things that people do well.

Further, to make sure your feedback is constructive, first ask yourself: will this feedback be useful and, can this person do anything about it? If the answer to both the questions is a yes, then go ahead and give the feedback.

Tips to giving feedback without offending

Here are some pointers that will help you give feedback without coming across as offensive.

1. Choose your timing

Being tactful and respectful when delivering feedback is crucial. True consideration of the other person’s feelings is essential if you want to get the best response and make it a positive experience for the person who is on the receiving end. Unfortunately, I have witnessed many examples of feedback being delivered at inappropriate times and having caused negative outcomes.

2. Be honest and assertive

An honest and assertive approach will create a win-win outcome. Giving feedback can be awkward and if it makes you feel as if you are walking on egg shells, it can end up sounding either passive or even aggressive. Honesty is the best policy as long as it is delivered with a positive intention.

3. Make it digestible

Although feedback is the food for progress, the person may not be able to digest it even if it’s good for her. Make sure you dilute an overly negative message with a combination of positive and constructive feedback.

4. Tune your tone

Not just your words, but the tone and pitch of your voice too have quite an effect on how your message is perceived. Maintaining a positive and upbeat tone, helps you be more assertive and confident. This makes the person receiving the feedback feel positive and confident too.

5. Maintain eye contact

Be totally present when you give feedback and help the person to feel connected to you by maintaining eye contact. However, don’t overdo it as this can come across as being aggressive.

6. Focus on the behaviour, not the person

This is important. Feedback should only be about something that a person can change. If it is about something that she cannot change, it is not constructive feedback and will just be perceived as hurtful criticism and will ruin your relationship.

7. Let it go

Once you have given your feedback, resist the need to repeat yourself. Allow the person to absorb the information and take action. If you have to ask someone to do something four times, I can promise you that the person in question has heard what you have to say and has most likely decided not to take on board the suggestions.

Sometimes people don’t immediately recognise how useful feedback can be. It may take a while for them to reassess and recognise the positive impact. Give them space.

Feedback is a wonderful tool that if used constructively, can open doors to amazing possibilities.

A version of this was first published in the June 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Liggy Webb
Liggy Webb is a leading authority in the field of behavioural change and positive psychology. She is based in the UK and is the founder director of The Learning Architect an international people development organisation. As an experienced learning and development professional she works as a consultant with a wide range of organisations including the United Nations and the NHS. Liggy’s next book The Happy Handbook is a practical guide to holistic happiness.


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