Feedback is a buzzword, with reactions that range from eye-rolls to pulse-pounding anxiety. Most people cringe at the thought because it makes us feel judged. We usually associate feedback with bad news and it tends to conjure up painful memories, be it a strict elementary school teacher or a painful performance review at work. We would much rather go through a day exchanging polite, superficial banalities with our co-workers and peers than sit and talk honestly about hard things.
Feedback is scary because it’s real and unpredictable. Feedback sheds light on our blind spots, which most of us have spent years trying to ignore. Simply entertaining the idea of giving or getting feedback can be exhausting and intimidating. So, understandably, we avoid it.
Plus, a lot of what we call feedback (especially at the workplace) is actually a misnomer. Feedback is the art of offering a response to a person’s actions with the intention of affecting positive change. Feedback is not an assessment, it’s a reaction.
Feedback provides us with a chance to build a more holistic picture of ourselves. It is one of the most accessible way to make our lives better and deepen our relationships. Developing our feedback skills can unlock a wealth of potential for us to become more connected to others and ourselves. The cost (awkwardness, upfront emotional investment) is more than offset by what is gained (self-actualization, sustainable long-term relationships).
Feedback gives us information about how we are perceived, so that we can course-correct if necessary. Without feedback, we are all muddling our way through our careers and personal relationships. You only ever know half the story (if that) because your perspective is shaped by your blind spots.
Feedback is a lever that increases the depth and quality of our relationships. Feedback is the signal we get back when we put something out in the world that lets us know how it was received. Feedback enables us to separate our selves and identities from our actions and work, which helps us learn, progress toward our goals and participate in one another’s growth. Feedback helps us bear witness to one another. Feedback lets us see, and be seen.
The beauty of feedback is that it breaks the narrative of superficial interaction. We are so used to surface conversations that exist to just keep things pleasant. However, this prescribed back and forth (“How are you?” “Good and you?” “Fine, thanks.” “Have a nice day!”) can be quite isolating. Without feedback, we are voluntarily participating in a fake reality.
The truth is that imbalance and struggle are more the norm than harmony but we have trained ourselves to pretend that’s not the case. We may all be “good” (as we claim in our prescribed back and forth script) but unless we practice giving, requesting and receiving feedback, we won’t know for sure where we stand. Ultimately, our collective allergy to feedback keeps us from knowing how we are truly seen and understanding how we affect others, both intentionally and unintentionally. This prevents us from organizing effectively, having fulfilling relationships and creating cohesive teams.
What makes feedback so hard?
Feedback is not chill. It’s not usually cool to care. Entering into a “feedback conversation” forces people who generally relate to one another informally to interact with a degree of formality. This code switching can feel cognitively dissonant.
Feedback is paradoxical. There is a fundamental balancing act between saying what the giver needs to say, and doing so in a manner that the receiver can digest. On the giving side, we often veer away from the truth, or don’t speak up at all for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. On the receiving side, our default is to shut down and refuse to hear what the giver is saying because we are too threatened to remain present or inquire further.
Feedback requires maturity. To be good at feedback, you actually have to step outside yourself. This means shortcutting knee-jerk reactions of defensiveness or deflection that humans have been practicing since the dawn of time. The skills of slowing down your reactions and giving the benefit of the doubt at the hardest moments (when you feel triggered) are really, really hard.
Feedback is high stakes. There needs to be a solid foundation of trust in the relationship in order for a feedback exchange to be successful. Both the giver and the receiver have to show up, be vulnerable and have skin in the game. This is not a small investment.
Feedback goes against the grain. To speak up about something, whether it’s good or bad, is to battle the inertia of silence. When you do so, you are are zooming out and engaging in a wholehearted perspective shift. It is a different level than most of our polite, social interactions. This can be uncomfortable, and feel unnatural at first.
It’s intimidating to give and receive feedback, but we are in this together. Without a practice of giving and getting feedback (the existence of a feedback loop), it can be easy to feel like we exist in a vacuum — it’s like throwing a ball into a hole, versus playing catch with someone. Being deprived of observations about how our efforts are landing with others, or whether we are progressing toward our goals is incredibly de-motivating. Learning how to do feedback well is an investment that stretches the edges of our existence.
What makes feedback easier
We’ve established that feedback is hard, but luckily, it is hard in predictable ways. There are formulas and tricks that can facilitate the process. It’s daunting, but not impossible, and it gets easier with practice. Feedback is a muscle that needs exercising.
Here are six feedback tips: two things to think about before you give feedback, two things to think about while you are giving feedback and two things to think about afterward. Consider them as guiding principles to help you navigate the feedback wilderness.
1 Better prompt than perfect.
Our desire to say the perfect thing often keep us from saying anything at all. We need to relax our standards of perfectly articulated feedback. It’s better to be inarticulate and raise a flag promptly than to say the perfect thing three years later. Feedback too late makes us feel defensive because we fixate on why the person didn’t tell us earlier, how long they have felt this way and why they are telling us now. It prevents us from hearing the actual message. So if something feels weird, say anything. It will only get harder the longer you wait.
2Get consent and set the stakes.
Feedback is a high impact event, and timing matters. Getting consent (“Hey, I have some feedback for you. Is now a good time?”) is a crucial first step. People will most likely say yes, because their curiosity tends to get the better of them, but at least you’ve asked them where they are at and given them a chance to bow out. Before you begin giving the feedback itself, it’s important to clarify the stakes and terms of the conversation. Being on the same page and having a shared perception of the end-goal matters for both givers and receivers. Both sides should be clear on why feedback is happening, and where it’s going. Researchers have found that if feedback starts with an introduction that conveys the fact that you have high standards for the recipient and believe that they are capable of doing better, it is more likely to result in behavior change. Conveying that is not rocket science, it can be simple as prefacing it with these 19 words: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
3Focus on there and then, not always or never.
Research shows that in order for people to hear it, feedback needs to be specific, and focused on the task, not the person. In other words, the more general the feedback, the less effective the result. Furthermore, vague feedback can be particularly detrimental for women. One simple way to set yourself up for success is to avoid using the words always or never — these words are distracting and feel like sucker punches. Keep your sights set on a specific interaction and pause and re-adjust the trajectory of the conversation if it feels like it is going off the rails. A feedback conversation is not about who you are as a person or what the intentions were (although it can quickly escalate into feeling like that is the case). If you notice this happening, say it out loud and take a break.
4 Show up.
Feedback is a relationship, and it requires a foundation of trust. Once you give feedback to someone, you are in this together. Because it’s a two-way street, It’s important to own any feedback you give. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, it is not a good idea to give feedback on behalf of someone else, or to give feedback anonymously. Anonymity sacrifices the transparency and specificity that makes feedback productive. Not knowing where the feedback is coming from misses the opportunity for the feedback to serve as a first step down a path along which a relationship can deepen. Furthermore, anonymity makes it more difficult to hold one another accountable to engage with the feedback in an ongoing way. Feedback is at it best when the content is specific and it comes in the form of straight-forward dialogue between people. In this way it is an invitation to follow-up and deepen peer relationships, something that can’t happen when both sides aren’t present. At its core, feedback is an expression of investment in someone else, so you need to be present for it.
5Feedback is just data.
If feedback feels like fake news, it might be. Sometimes it is one person’s word against another’s, and if this happens the emphasis should be on excavating each person’s position to understand the underlying needs and factors. Once you get (or give) feedback, your work isn’t done. Digesting feedback requires introspection and analysis. You can give feedback on feedback. You can also gut-check feedback you receive with other people you trust to find out if there is a shared grain of truth in there, or if it’s just one person’s point of view. Sometimes feedback reveals an underlying agenda that might actually be unrelated to the feedback itself. Along those lines, feedback you give can sometimes reveal more about you than the person you are giving it to. It’s important to acknowledge the bias in your perspective and recognize any contribution you might have made to the dynamic at play.
6Feedback is for the future.
While the content of the feedback is specific and focused on something that took place in the past, the deeper narrative is about how both of you will act toward one another moving forward. It’s important to follow-up on feedback exchanges. Feedback doesn’t work if it feels like a drive-by dump. Ideally, once the feedback topic has been broached, people should check in with one another at regular intervals about what progress has been made, how things have shifted, and how everyone is feeling. Ultimately, feedback is a reciprocal and ongoing relationship. Dynamics have the potential to improve greatly after constructive feedback is delivered and gets processed together.
Where to begin
If you’re like most people, and you’ve gotten this far, you are on board with the concept, but are also wondering what this actually looks like IRL.
One way in is to start by inviting feedback. If giving and getting feedback are the two seats on opposite sides of the table, then inviting feedback is the outstretched hand that bridges the gap. In her book Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, Patty McCord (former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix) shares a very utilitarian, yet powerful, framework for requesting feedback from people. During her time there, Netflix discarded the clunky tradition of the annual performance review, and decided against collecting anonymous feedback. Instead, each employee asks their colleagues, “what behaviors should I stop, start, or continue doing?”. This puts employees in the driver’s seat of their own development. The simplicity of the “stop, start, continue” prompt is what makes it so valuable. It is both specific (you can wrap your brain around the prompts) and open-ended (you really have to think about the answers).Unlike the vague question “do you have any feedback for me?” asking what someone thinks you could stop, start and continue doing to be successful provides a little bit of direction.
By asking for feedback, your consent is implied and you are laying down the building blocks for a foundation of open and honest conversations in your relationship. Often, when you ask someone what you should stop, start and continue doing, they will turn around and ask you the same question in return. By taking this first step toward inviting feedback into the room, you are modeling the behavior that leads to a healthy feedback relationship. It’s a chicken and egg scenario: feedback requires trust, but it also creates it. Putting yourself out there and asking for feedback is a show of vulnerability that builds the trust that feedback needs.
Instead of the old adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” we should tell ourselves “if you have something hard to say, ask first.” It may feel counterintuitive, but asking instead of telling is a great way to prime someone for any feedback that you want to share. Putting yourself out there first will make the interaction much more meaningful. Even if you don’t have feedback to give, inviting feedback sets a baseline and breaks the feedback seal in your relationship.
Because feedback is a muscle, it’s important to start small. In the same way that you would make sure your form was correct before you begin lifting heavy weights at the gym, it’s useful to build a feedback routine, even if there’s nothing specific on your mind. This can be as simple as putting “time for feedback” on the meeting agenda, or just committing to a recurring practice of inviting feedback from others (in the manner described above, or one that feels better to you). Even if you don’t have feedback to give, you can still create the space for it, so that the container is there when you do have something to put in it — and inevitably you will. Conveying small bits of feedback frequently makes it easier to deliver the gnarly stuff down the line. Making the effort to give feedback is an investment in someone and builds the foundation for a trusting relationship. In a trusting relationship, each person knows that they are more than the sum of their feedback, and can therefore give the benefit of the doubt if something comes out wrong or triggers an extreme reaction. Feedback paves the way for the psychological safety that is so crucial to effective collaboration and success in working relationships.
The hardest things are soft. Human relationships, whether at home or at work, are incredibly complex and challenging. Feedback is a tool for dismantling the overwhelming complexity of our relationships. In order for it to be effective, however, feedback requires promptness, consent, specificity, presence, analysis and a future-focus. The manner in which feedback is delivered matters greatly. The final thought that I’d like to leave you with is that it is the packaging of feedback that has the power to deepen or destroy a relationship. It’s that simple. That’s what those 6 tricks above are all about. Focusing on the packaging is the solution for navigating all of the forces prevent us from giving feedback to one another.
Why feedback matters now, more than ever
We are losing something impossibly valuable every time we don’t speak up about what’s going on for us at work, at home and in the world. Remaining silent makes us complicit in the status quo.
Individual feedback can be a foundation for social change, and a step toward undoing oppression in society. Getting better at understanding how to give and receive feedback lays the groundwork for addressing deep, structural social justice issues that are baked deep into our institutions, but tend to manifest themselves in in our individual relationships. Gaining comfort with a feedback practice sets us up to make progress on the difficult task of calling out (or “calling in”, as social justice practitioners like Ngọc Loan Trần propose) oppressive behavior in ourselves and others. As Robin DiAngelo explains in the introduction of her bestselling book White Fragility, “…I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth.” What begins as a “stop, start, continue” conversation between two people has the potential to expand exponentially.
Many of us, especially women and marginalized people, have been taught not to vocalize our needs, preferences or desires. It is more socially awkward, and sometimes downright dangerous, to say “this is making me uncomfortable” than to play along. Improving our feedback skills as a culture is a strategy for addressing the chokehold that toxic masculinity has on our country today. We can use individual feedback interactions to pave a path toward breaking down destructive dominant cultural norms that have taken root in our society.