Embracing the art of giving feedback
Navigating the uncomfortable in personal and professional spaces
This morning, on my way to work, a kind lady at the tram stop informed me of a minor wardrobe malfunction. I thanked her profusely, but she was very apologetic about pointing it out. This led me to reflect on the social norms of telling people something is awry with their appearance. We hesitate to point these things out, even though we know the person would be more embarrassed to realise they were, for instance, walking around with toilet paper stuck to their shoe for an hour at a party, than be informed early on and remove it. This is not necessarily because we are afraid of embarrassing the recipient of the information, but because we find it uncomfortable to put ourselves in the position of giving negative feedback.
The same applies to feedback in a professional setting, giving someone feedback on areas of personal and professional development. We avoid giving constructive criticism, try to soften the message, or delay the conversation, in order to avoid the uncomfortable feelings of possibly hurting someone else’s feelings. Of course, since it is human nature to minimise discomfort, we have to actively work at this in order to get better at giving feedback. To this end, here are some strategies I have learned in the past few years, from various sources –
Consider the impact
Training courses on providing feedback stress the importance of “impact-based conversations”. When providing negative feedback, or discussing areas for improvement with someone, it is more effective to frame the conversation in terms of the impact of the behaviour in question. In a professional context, people can often re-evaluate behaviours once they realise the impact it is having on other members of the team or on the deliverable. As a parallel, when overcoming the reluctance to provide feedback, if we consider the impact of the behaviour continuing in its current form, it can provide greater impetus to have the conversation early.
Feedback is a gift
While a lot of gifts can be dubious (the office Secret Santa gag gifts come to mind), feedback is an important way to look into our own blind spots, and understand how to improve ourselves. If we think of our feedback in this way, it makes it easier to think of it as a positive contribution to the person. Of course, extending the gifting analogy, gifts are appreciated more when they are nicely wrapped. Therefore, using supportive and empathetic language is important when giving feedback.
Put yourself in their shoes
When all else fails, consider whether you would want this feedback if you were in the same position. Most times, when we receive feedback, after the initial upsurge of discomfort, embarrassment or defensiveness, we realise that it has helped us improve. Personally, I have always appreciated feedback — though some instances took more time than others to overcome the discomfort and embarrassment. Even the most shocking feedback has provided insights that have been useful in self-improvement.
What other strategies do you use to overcome your reluctance to give feedback? I look forward to hearing from you.
And for the record, if my slip is showing, I will always appreciate being told, and be grateful for the opportunity to fix it!