It's feedback time. Oh good.

Although feedback has a reputation for being painful for both the giver and the receiver, we only have to observe a few simple ideas to make it successful for both.

June 2, 2017

In life, we like to choose what we do and how we do it. Or to put it another way, we don't like people choosing for us. But sometimes we have to tell someone that the choices they are making either don't suit us or don't suit what they're supposed to be doing towards the output of the group. So how do we match the need to sometime get people to change direction (behaviour or attitude) without telling them what to do? Without making choices for them, against their will.

We give feedback and leave them to decide what they do next. Simple. 

OK, so why is it so difficult to do in practice? Here are 4 of the most common errors that we make.

Too late

Getting up the courage to tell someone that we don't like what they're doing is not always easy - there seems to be so much that can go wrong that it often seems worth swallowing the pain in the name of 'being grown up about it'. Conversely, remembering, or making the time, to tell someone how pleased we were about something that they've done can also elude us. Sometimes we put off giving that type of news because we tell ourselves that the recipient probably doesn't need that sort of thing or that we'll cause embarrassment. Consequently, when we do get around to giving a negative, we've often built up feelings around it and out they come! Worse, because we haven't made the effort to give positives, when they occurred, we can come across as being permanently negative. As with many things, timing is everything; feedback goes stale.

Too subtle

In an effort not to impinge on the person's autonomy or in an effort to not make them feel bad we dilute the news. And in fact, the most important piece of news almost always gets left out: the feeling. Our feeling to be precise. How I felt when you did the thing you did which prompted the feedback in the first place. By leaving out, or being too subtle, about my negative reaction to what you have done, I hide the main reason for why you might want to take notice of my view. Feelings drive everything that we do. If I tell you that something you have done has made my day or has intrigued me, you'll do it again. If I tell you that I was annoyed when you did xyz, you will know that if you choose to continue that you will likely achieve the same outcome again.

Too much

We often bury important messages in unnecessary detail or in other topics. Sometimes we do it on purpose as a way of trying to 'soften the blow'. If the softening decoys work our message gets so lost as to be of no use.  If it doesn't work the recipient becomes uncomfortable about the size of the problem that is being mixed in with the innocuous news. Brevity works.

Too general

Again, often for fear of offending or because of a wish to show respect we keep things general so that the other person doesn't feel 'got at'. In the case of positive feedback, being too general, makes our feedback sound hollow because it's not specific enough. And if it's about something negative the person is left confused or even worried because they can't quite make out the size of the problem.

To be beautifully successful for us both, feedback need be nothing more than a short, specific statement of how I feel about something specific that you have done.

I was relieved when you answered the technical questions - I would have been out of my depth.

I was worried when you raised your voice in front of John because we can't afford to annoy him.

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