The Art of GIVING Feedback (yes, I'm talking to you)

I do a lot of work with young professionals around the art of receiving feedback. If you ask upper management or senior partners in most industries, you will hear a consensus among leaders that today's generation has a really hard time with any type of feedback that isn't positive. It is really hard to hear you are not perfect for the first time as a young adult, and this is happening in part because we are giving everyone trophies and parents are not letting kids fail.  Processing feedback is a skill that needs to be developed.

And. The more I work with this generation, and am bringing up kids of my own, I am starting to realize that we  need to shift our focus to the way we are giving feedback as well. In all honesty, many of us don't give feedback in ways that makes someone likely to receive it.  Giving feedback in a positive way is completely different than always giving positive feedback, and yet the two are frequently confused. Being great at giving feedback doesn't mean you have to lie and say something is great that isn't. It simply requires communicating in a way that is likely to land with the listener.

Before you give someone feedback, think about your goal.  If the goal is to motivate them to improve, you need to communicate in a way that inspires them to do better while providing a clear path to whatever better looks like. If your goal is to make someone feel like crap or to punish them, then tell them how they are inadequate and are failing. (While you are at it, put in an ad for that position because it will be open before long.)

For the sake of this conversation, I will assume we are giving feedback to help others be better.

Leaders I work with are often baffled when they learn they are viewed as poor mentors. "I always say something positive before I say something negative," an Executive explained.  Many people believe this strategy makes for good feedback.

However, if you tell someone, "That was great, but this is still really lacking," can you guess what message they will hear? The receiver hears something like, "That one minor thing was ok, but overall you suck." You might wonder, how do you get THAT from THAT????? Trust me. This is real. Even if the receiver isn't a sensitive soul (which more of us are than we like to admit), there is a thing called the negativity bias that makes us much more likely to latch on and only hear the negative.

Additionally, we are likely to distance ourselves from the positive comment (that was just about my work that one time) and make the negative part personal (I am failing or insufficient overall). Understanding the way people process feedback at its most extreme is helpful to those of us who frequently give it. We mean well, and often, we have no idea that we actually crushed someone we intended to bolster.

Today, I want to share just two tips that will improve the way you give feedback. This applies in every imaginable setting where you are leading, coaching or teaching others.

ONE: Affirm the person, not just their work product.
"Sarah, I really appreciate your ability to get to the heart of the problem. You honed in quickly and brought the whole team with you."  (affirming person and work)
vs. "Sarah, you did a good job identifying this problem." (complimenting work in one instance)          
 
"Nick, your positivity is awesome, and your enthusiasm gives everyone a lift when we get a little stagnant.  Great job today." (affirming person and work)
vs.  "Nick, you did a good job of bringing the energy up in the room today." (complimenting work in one instance)

While it is always good to point out a specific job well done, expressing appreciation for the qualities that enabled a person to do that job well is much more meaningful and lasting. It makes the receiver feel valued as a person- and much more likely to hear additional suggestions for improvement.


TWO: Stop using the word "but."

Use the word AND instead.

Compare:
"You did a good job on that, but still really need to work on X."
vs.
"You did a good job on that, and lets really keep working on X."

There is no reason to say BUT.  None. Whatsoever.  It is negative. Whatever nice thing you said before "but" will not be remembered, or worse, will be taken as a platitude for your real agenda, which is the thing you say after the "but." Use "AND" instead. You can convey the exact same message, and using "and" communicates positively rather than negatively.

At the end of the day, feedback can be tough to give and receive. There is no reason to be negative. Even the toughest of messages can be communicated positively so long as the goal is to help someone be better. 

Have questions or comments? Let's hear them!

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