Last week I put together a proposal for a perspective client and had a colleague look at it before sending it out. After reading it, she pointed out some of the ways that I could improve the proposal, and did it in a way that left me feeling good about the whole exchange. I immediately made the changes that she recommended. It got me thinking about the skillful way that she made her suggestions and the art of giving effective feedback.
It’s such an integral part of building and maintaining strong relationships. We all need to be able to do it, but so often we have trouble with it. We stress about it, put it off and when it finally reaches a tipping point it often comes out in a way that ends up being seen as a personal attack or as unfair, or as just plain WRONG. It pushes the emotional buttons of the other person to the point where they become defensive and stop listening to the feedback. Feedback like that does no one any good. The good news is that there are a few simple rules to follow to make the feedback you give easier for others to hear and accept.
1) Pick The Right Time And Place
When you give corrective feedback to someone you are hoping that they are going to hear it, accept it and make the changes that you are suggesting. A very easy way to make that not happen is to choose the wrong time or place to give the feedback. Will they be more receptive to your feedback when they are still angry and emotional because of the mistake they’ve made, or after they’ve had a chance to calm down? Will it be easier for them to hear what you have to say at 5 PM on Friday or at 1030 am? Everyone’s different, but in general:
- Provide corrective feedback in private
- Pick a time when the other person is able to hear what you have to say.
2) Give It For The Right Reason
Why are you giving the feedback? To help the other person, or to put them down? Ideally, it’s to help the other person learn, develop or grow. There are times, however, when we have to provide feedback that is more about influencing another person’s behavior than helping them to grow. We NEED them to do something differently for our reasons or because our role requires it. Even in those situations, it’s important to keep in mind that people do things for their reasons, not ours. Do your best to empathize and see things from their perspective. Then provide your feedback as gently and positively as possible
3) Ask Before You Tell
Before you provide any feedback, make sure that you really know what the other person is experiencing. I was leading a seminar last year and the participants had developed ground rules for how the seminar should run. One of the ground rules was that participants wouldn’t use smartphones while the seminar was in session. As I was working with the group on the second day I couldn’t help but notice a guy sitting with his hands beneath his table texting furiously. My immediate reaction was to walk over to him and remind him of the ground rule. But instead of doing that – in front of the rest of the group – I bit my tongue and waited for a break. At the break, I went up to him and asked a question: “Is everything ok?” It turned out that everything was not ok. He was in from out-of-town and had gotten a text from his wife that morning that his mother had been taken to the hospital. If I had jumped the gun and started offering feedback before I knew the whole story I would have felt about 3 inches tall.
We see things from our own perspectives. It’s important to recognize that others have their own experiences and motivations and are seeing things through their own set of lenses. Without knowing how they see things, your feedback may miss its target. Before you point out what someone needs to do differently ask for information, in as nonjudgmental a way possible.
4) Make Your Feedback Specific And Descriptive
A lot of feedback is offered in an accusatory, judgmental way. And it doesn’t get the results that the sender would like. Here’s an example of nonspecific and non-descriptive feedback:
“Janet you don’t seem committed to our project team.”
Is that specific and descriptive? Absolutely not! Commitment is an internal state. It’s about feelings and emotions. People don’t respond well to having their minds read, and most of us aren’t particularly good at it.
Try to focus your feedback on what the person did – their behaviors. Instead of “Janet you don’t seem committed to our project team.” , describe what Janet has done that has led you to that conclusion. You might say “ Janet I noticed that you left the room in the middle of the meeting this morning”; or “Janet I noticed that you were on your laptop, working on an expense report during the team meeting this morning”, or “Janet I noticed that you fell asleep during the project team meeting this morning.” All of those are more specific and descriptive. Did you see why? Because they focus on the person’s behavior, not their internal state, or feelings of motivations.
5) Provide Examples Of The Behaviors
Sometimes (actually pretty often) when we are given feedback, even when it’s specific and behavioral, it’s hard to accept. So as a natural defense mechanism we deny – “I don’t do that”, “Who me?”. When you give feedback, help the person you are giving it to avoid denial. Provide them with specific examples of when they’ve engaged in the behavior: “Janet when you come late to our team meetings, like you did on Monday (example) and Friday (example).
6) Use I-Messages To Own Your Perspective And Describe The Impact On You
For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, “I-messages are not about using your I-phone to text. A behavioral “I-message” is a less judgmental, less provocative way of getting part of your message across. It can be used to express an opinion or a feeling. It’ll be easier to understand if I contrast it with a you message.
You Message: “You made me angry when you came late to our project team meeting”.
Think about the potential impact of a You Message:
- It may feel like an attack
- It may feel as if you are blaming them for something
- It may hurt the other person’s feelings.
All of those potential impacts can lead to resistance. I-messages are less likely to have those negative impacts. Here’s an I-message for the same situation:
I-Message: “I got angry when you came late to our project team meeting”.
In some ways, the I-message is very similar to the first You Message. In another way it’s radically different. Did you notice how it’s different? It’s about ownership of the feelings. In the You Message I was pushing the ownership onto the other person. They caused me to be angry. With the I-message I accept ownership of my own feelings. That makes them easier for the other person to hear and accept. The real meaning of communication is in the impact that it has. I-messages have a less provocative, easier to accept impact.
7) Link Their Behavior To Its Consequence
Once you’ve described the behavior that they’ve engaged in, provided examples and used I-Messages, the next step is to let them know why they should change by describing the natural negative consequences. In the project team meeting example from above, the natural consequences of Janet not attending team meetings might be
“We don’t get the benefit of your expertise when we are making decisions and we may make the wrong choice without your input. We could miss the target deadline.”
Not having the benefit of her expertise and making the wrong decisions are the natural consequences of Janet not being at the meeting. I’m trying to show her why she should change her behavior. Now, if Janet doesn’t care about the project — or about me for that matter — the consequences that I’ve described won’t have much of an impact. At least not the impact that I want. So I want to do my best to link a consequence that has a WIIFM – What’s In It For Me. In this case, what’s in it for Janet. If you can’t come up with one that is personally relevant use an organizational WIIFM. Missing the deadline matters to the organization. It’s an organizational WIIFM.
In The Real World
It may be difficult when you need to give corrective feedback to someone who matters to you in the real world to think back to this post and remember these guidelines. Luckily, there’s a simple little word chain that you can learn that will help you channel your feedback in the right direction. I call it Instant Feedback but its origins go all the way back to Thomas Gordon and his Leadership Effectiveness Training. Remember five words: When you, I feel, Because.
- When you (Describe the behavior and provide examples)
- I feel (Use an I message to own your perspective)
- Because (Link the behavior to its impact)
So for our example, with the project team, it might look something like:
- When you come late to our project team meetings, like you did on Thursday
- I feel frustrated
- Because we aren’t able to make well formed decisions without your input and I’m concerned that we won’t be able to meet our target deadlines.
It’s as simple as that. Remember those five words to give feedback that is easier for the other person to hear and accept. Try it with someone today! Download and use this FEEDBACK PLANNER to help organize your thoughts.