The art of useful feedback

‘How can I support you?’ is a query I often offer people. I dropped the word ‘help’ from my vocabulary several years ago when I realised that it denied people learning opportunities: by ‘helping’ someone you’re signalling that you think the person is inept. In offering support, though, you’re acknowledging that they are already on the path to success.

‘Support’ offers encouragement, empowerment, and fosters growth – of individuals and relationships. It’s the icing on the cake. ‘Help’, on the other hand, places the person offering it firmly in centre stage – they want to control the baking of the cake and measure out all the ingredients themselves – they believe that they’re the only person who can complete the process correctly (for further clarification on the differences between ‘help’ and ‘support’ click here).

Giving and receiving support is an important facet in so many spheres of our lives, and perhaps one of the most crucial is offering feedback. We’ve all experienced, to varying degrees, an internal wince when we’ve heard someone criticise a colleague’s perceived shortcomings. Criticising a person is not a constructive way to provide feedback. Feedback is a loop – it’s a mechanism – a two-way street. If you attack someone when you provide it, you’re indicating that you’re not interested in seeing them learn or succeed. You’re simultaneously devaluing them on an individual, collegial, and very human, level.

Individuals who provide negative and demoralising commentary also show that they’re not even listening to what you’re saying. As Stephen R. Covey asserts, “The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” In other words, the critic’s ego becomes more important than the collective growth and harmony of an organisation, team, or group.

To ensure you give useful feedback, consider the following: 1) Be honest but not harsh. The key here is tact. Take the time to listen to what someone is saying, jot down points for improvement, and make a list of all the good points they make.

2) If you aren’t sure, clarify. If you don’t follow what a person is saying, take the time to ask them what they mean. By rephrasing your confusion in a question, you’re assisting rather than hindering. For example, “You mention that x is a challenge. I’m not sure why – could you explain that again?”

3) Lead with the good, and end with it too. Use good points to start your feedback loop, transform the ‘criticisms’ into points for improvement, and end with a few more good points and a compliment or two.

4) Respond – don’t react. If something someone has said has you up in arms, reflect on why it has provoked you. Once you’ve done that, craft a response which is useful for both your understanding, and the other person’s awareness.

5) Use every opportunity for a ‘teaching moment’. As platitudinous as it may sound, it certainly holds true that ‘When you teach, two people learn’. You improve yourself when you take the time to understand, remember, and utilise knowledge, and when you teach those skills to others.

Next time you’re required to provide feedback, picture yourself on the receiving end. Is what you’ve noted useful and constructive or is it attacking and condemning? Is the other person going to learn and improve, or do you risk ruining your relationship with them? Kindness is the new cool, compassion is the new strong, and empathy just makes life so much easier.