How to Give Feedback

How to Give Feedback

I’ve always sought feedback on my work. Not out of a need for reassurance or approbation, but out of a desire to improve. And maybe out of a need for meaningful human connection, too. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I see a lot of other folks asking for, or hoping for, feedback too – mostly with very limited success.

Setting aside the value of effective feedback for a moment – there’s been much written about this, especially in the context of reducing cycle times and shortening feedback loops in software and product development, as well as in organisational change – I’d like to share some ideas on how to give feedback.

“As more and more people learn to offer feedback…the overall dread of feedback-giving can diminish, and feedback can be restored to its fundamental function: a method for people to work together to create environments where productivity flows, where trust and goodwill flourish, and where individuals thrive.”

~ Miki Kashtan

Shortage of Feedback

I don’t get nearly as much feedback on my work as I’d like. Or even as much as I need to improve it. I used to think it was because people are unused to giving feedback, or don’t realise how valuable it can be. Or have worked themselves for so long in organisations where feedback is given so poorly that they want to avoid inflicting the same pain on others (including me).

“Knowing how painful it can be for people to hear a criticism, and how rarely feedback leads to productive conversations or satisfying change, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine that giving feedback can have beneficial consequences. “

~ Miki Kashtan

Now, though, I’m coming round to the idea that maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe it’s just that folks are uncertain about how to approach giving feedback. Hopefully this post can make a contribution towards testing that hypothesis – and in addressing that uncertainty, too.

The Perfection Game

For some years now, I have favoured the Perfection Game as the best format I know of by which to give and receive feedback. I commend it to you as a means to focus on the positive, and exclude or reduce negative criticisms.

But it still strikes (sic) me as coercive and violent – what we might call call “life-alienating communication” – both in its giving and its receiving. At least in the terms of Marshall Rosenberg‘s Non-violent Communication.

Non-violent Feedback

This kind of feedback is not just a small change or tweak, but a major realignment of our understanding of what it means to “give feedback”. From expressing “what we think”, to seeking to understand the feelings and needs of all concerned. This may sound like it’s turning each occasion we give feedback into a major piece of work, and it can be – at least until practice reduces the effort involved.

“If we are able to remain open to creating a solution [or improvement] together, instead of being attached to a particular outcome, others can sense that their well-being matters.”

~ Miki Kashtan

Use Positive Action Language

Express what you do want, rather than what you don’t want.

“How do you do a don’t?”

~ from a children’s song by Ruth Bebermeyer

Also, expressing your requests in terms of concrete actions can better reveal what you really want . Avoid vague, abstract or ambiguous phrases:

Ask for a Reflection

The message we send is not always the message that’s received. To be more confident that we’ve been understood when giving feedback, we can ask others – e.g. the listener – to reflect back in their own words what they heard us say. We then have the opportunity to restate parts of our message to address any discrepancies or omissions we might have noticed through their reflection. Express appreciation when your listeners try to meet your request for a reflection. And empathise with listeners who don’t want to (or can’t) reflect back.

Avoid Compliments

“Compliments are often judgements – however positive – of others.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Rosenberg regards compliment and expressions of appreciation and praise as life-alienating communication. I share that viewpoint. Instead, he suggests we include three components in the expression of appreciation:

  1. The actions that have contributes to our well-being.
  2. The particular needs of ours that have been fulfilled.
  3. The pleasureful feelings engendered by the fulfilment of those needs.

(Non-violent Communication ~ Rosenberg p.186)

In other words, saying “Thank you” consists of sharing:

  • This is what you did;
  • This is what I feel;
  • This is the need of mine that was met.

Like receiving feedback effectively, receiving appreciation effectively takes some practice and skill, too:

“I kiss the Spirit in you that allows you to give me what you did.”

~ Nafez Assailey

And if you, like so many of us, crave some kind of appreciation, why not tell people what kind of appreciation would leave you jumping for joy?

How often do you go out of your way to express appreciation for someone? If receiving sincere and effective appreciation is a joyful experience for you, imagine the similar joy that your actions might bring to others.

Solicitation

When feedback is solicited, the exchange can often feel less confrontational than when “feedback” is unsolicited. Unsolicited feedback, however well intentioned, can feel more like some kind of blame, coercion, judgmentalism or personal attack.

I have seen advice to the effect that if one is not explicitly asked to provide feedback, then one should refrain. That seems to me to be avoiding the issue – maybe acceptable as a coping strategy in the face of absent or limited skills, but dysfunctional nevertheless.

Maybe we might more usefully reframe “giving effective unsolicited feedback” as “learning to more effectively express ourselves and our own feelings, needs and requests”.

Receiving Feedback

Not only is the ability to give feedback (effectively) a useful skill, receiving feedback effectively is also a useful – and similarly often under-appreciated – skill.

Do you like receiving praise? Does it stroke your ego? Can you act on it?

“Compliments are often no more than judgements – however positive – of others.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

What do you do – what CAN you do – when someone tells you something like “You’re great” or “That was fantastic”? Here’s an example:

Praiser: “Bob, that was a really good presentation.”
Me: “Thank you. But I’m not able to get as much out of your appreciation as I would like.”
Praiser: “Errm. What do you mean?”
Me: “I’ve been called many things over the years. I can’t remember ever learning much by being told what I am. I’d like to learn from your appreciation and enjoy it, but I’d need more information.”
Praiser: “What kind of information?”
Me: “First off, I’d like to know what I said or did that made life more wonderful for you?”
Praiser: “Oh. Ok. You said X. And later showed slide Y.”
Me: “So it’s those two things that you appreciate?”
Praiser: “I guess so.”
Me: “Next up, I’d like to know how you feel, consequent on those two things.”
Praiser: “Hmmm.” (Pauses, thinks) “Enthused. And enlightened.”
Me: “And now, I’d like to know what needs of yours were met by hearing and seeing X and Y?”
Praiser: “I have colleagues who always undermine my belief in the value of X. Hearing your view on X tells me I’m not completely crazy. And I never really succeeded in understanding Y until now.”

Only upon hearing all three pieces of information – what I did, how they felt about (some of) it, and what needs of theirs were fulfilled – can we then celebrate the appreciation together.

Of course, if the praiser had some skills in NVC, they might have said directly: “Bob, when you said X, and later showed slide Y, I felt enthused and enlightened, because I’ve been searching for support and encouragement with my ideas on X, and I never really understood Y until now.”

“NVC encourages us to receive appreciation with the same quality of empathy we express when listening to other messages. We hear what we have done that has contributed to others’ well-being. We hear their feelings and the needs that we fulfilled. We take into our hearts the joyous reality that we can each enhance the quality of others’ lives.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Feedback on this Post

I would really like to hear about your viewpoint on this article, and in particular what changes (actions) I might take to improve it. This would help enrich my life through meeting my need for improvement, as well as for meaningful (human) connection. I would also value hearing about what, if anything, in this post has causes you to reflect, research more, or  change your views – as this would meet my need for making a difference in the world.

- Bob

Further Reading

Feedback Without Criticism ~ Miki Kashtan (Online article)
NVC Feedback – The Executive Advisory
Non-violent Communication: A Language of Life ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg
The Core Protocols ~ Jim and Michele McCarthy

32 comments
  1. Rasmus Rasmussen said:

    NVC is on top in my bookpile! I don’t think any knowledge recent years has given me as much value as about peer-to-peer feedback. Me and my environment, that is..

    • Hi Rasmus,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      Are you reading or have you read Rosenberg’s book?

      - Bob

      • Rasmus Rasmussen said:

        I got it in our bookshelf My wife reads it, and I will read it also. I got related learnings from elsewhere: PSL, AYE and Secrets of Agile teamwork. I believe I use tools from theirs every day. Unvaluable stuff!

  2. Thank you for sharing. What I like to see is some reflection on culture, be it country or company or whatsoever culture. And even more important the person behind. So I personally believe this is a field for the really experienced and there is only one real way to learn it: Try and error. And some have a natural talent, but my observation is that those with the feedback talent are those who are very emphatic for other people.

    So i always try to reach out to the persons emotion to be able to talk about feedback no matter in what direction the feedback flows. Best is always if it is bidirectional.

    • Hi Kai,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      Did you mean to write “empathetic”?

      - Bob

  3. Feedback can be a gift, a present that helps to improve and collaborate more effectively. That’s assuming that people value collaboration, and appreciate what you do already. In such cases, I ask for feedback, and appreciate all the feedback that I can get! And I give feedback to people that I work with, in a sincere and respectful way, which is almost always appreciated by them.

    If people have difficulty in how to give feedback, that’s ok. I’ll just ask them to explain their feedback, so that I can understand it better. Together we can improve in giving, and receiving feedback.

    Is it a matter of having a good relationship with the people that you work with, before you can give or receive feedback?

    • Hi Ben,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      Do you get as much feedback as you feel you need? Do you give enough to meet others’ needs?

      Do you find it awkward or otherwise difficult to give or receive feedback with people with whom you don’t (yet) have a good relationship?

      - Bob

      • Bob, thanks for your reaction. To answer your questions:

        Can you ever get too much feedback? I get a lot of feedback, one of the reasons is that I ask for feedback early and often.

        Do I give enough? Probably not, but I try to create many opportunities to give and receive feedback. The best way to learn how to give and receive feedback is by doing it.

        Awkward or difficult, yes, it not so easy to give feedback if you don’t know each other well enough. But thats another good reason to invest in building up relationships with people with who you are working!

        I remember one situation with a customer where I got about 20 different compliments on the work that I had done, and just a couple of things to improve, in the first feedback session. The only person who suggested improvements was the person who hired me. Ok, I’m good, but not that good ;-) One thing this feedback made clear was that this organization wasn’t capable of giving useful feedback, which was a significant root cause why things were not improving…

  4. Bob,
    Thank you for this important post.
    After a first quick read, I give you 8/10 points.
    I like the amplification from different sources, giving me a holistic background.
    To make it perfect, I would
    - include reference to the Core Protocols where the Perfection Game comes from and
    - elaborate on the receiving part:-)
    One additional suggestion, inspired by and not only related to this post: how about changing your “will there be updates?” line into “please perfect this draft with your feedback, to encourage updates”?
    That would invite me to do this on all your posts as I generally (in line with what you said) don’t give unsolicited feedback:-)
    Thanks, take care
    Olaf

    • Hi Olaf,

      Thanks for reading, and for your feedback. I appreciate your use of the Perfection Game format, although that format no longer meets my needs, in terms of the advice contained within the post. I have acted on your actionable requests. :)

      Does my regular habit of inviting feedback (comments, opinions) at the bottom of most of my posts not constitute “solicitation of feedback”? Please tell me what could I do to make such solicitation more explicit – aside from the (now updated) header?

      FWIW, unsolicited feedback would still help meet my need for meaningful human connection.

      - Bob

  5. Irene said:

    I read an article some time ago about giving and receiving feedback that made a big impact on me. It was basically the story of two people practicing giving and receiving feedback with each other. The turning point for them was when one said “Your moderation in the meeting was really good” and the other one accepted it but shortly afterwards stopped and said something along the lines of “well, that’s nice but why exactly?”. From then on they tried to be more precise about why something was good/bad every time.
    For me this was an important lesson because it helped me understand why I was sometimes frustrated with the feedback I received although it was positiv. I missed that in your post although it’s being touched a few times.
    What I really like though is the part about the non-violent communcation. I didn’t think of using NVC for this purpose before but it adds another dimension which makes the feedback even more useful.
    There is something else you make me think about: I (as a reader) found it annoying to be asked for feedback on this article so many times and so intensly. I wonder why…

  6. Bob,

    I have grown up with the saying “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. To me this is, well, nice and being nice is important to me. However, in the context of feedback, it’s insufficient and it’s not honest and honesty is something I also value deeply.

    So, as you can imagine, for a long time I’ve been caught in both minds while trying to provide feedback. When you introduced me to the perfection game and gave your initial feedback on Lean Agile Scotland I was pleased. Not just because of the feedback which in itself was valuable but because you had given me a method in which to express feedback.

    I think both the perfection game and the non violent feedback have their place. The perfection game may help with more structured feedback and the non violent feedback with less formal, more spontaneous, feedback. Although this might be just my shallow understanding. I’m interested in your thoughts?

    So thank you, in that:
    (1)
    You have introduced me to yet another new method;
    This has made me feel that I may be able to give better feedback
    which could satisfy both my requirement to be nice and honest.

    Thank you also,
    (2)
    For coming to Lean Agile Scotland
    This helped me make a real connection
    Without which I probably would not have felt confident enough to have left this comment.

    Thought provoking :-)

    And sorry for the excessive use of the word nice :-)

    Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your comment. Consequent on that, I feel my time in writing the post was worthwhile. It meets my needs of feeling I’m making a difference, and of continuing our connection.

      Maybe because I’ve practiced the Perfection Game more, I find it easy and quick – and sometimes spontaneous – to give feedback that way. Being much less practised with Non-violent Communication, I’m finding I’m investing much more effort and deliberation in formulating my feedback in this style. It feels like it’s much deeper and more considered, presently, though. Not least because of the need to connect with real feelings and personal needs.

      For example, in the section I’ve marked (1) in your comment, were you perhaps feeling reassured, or maybe optimistic? And were your needs also about not offending people?

      - Bob

  7. I think optimism is a good way of putting it. Optimistic that any future discussions I can avoid the my inner conflict and provide a valued response.

    Yes, I ‘d say your right. When providing feedback I focus on not being offensive with what I say.

    Chris

  8. This post (like many before) has caused me to reflect. I liked the addition of the The Core Protocols, and have send them off to my kindle for reading later.

    The article is written from the point of view of how you can get more feedback and I can see how this has been frustrating while you were onsite with us. However I would be interested to hear about how your attempts to give feedback, both positive and negative have gone.

    One observation I had, was that your role as therapist means you don’t give feedback for fear of shifting the burden, but it might be that it is this context that has some effect on how easy it is for people to give feedback. Sorry I know this is not actionable just wanted to get it out there.

    • Hi Andy,

      Thanks for the feedback. I feel challenged (in a positive way) to give more feedback, even when in the role of Therapist.

      I guess therapists generally hold back from being judgemental of their patients, but with the kind of feedback described in this post I’m realising that doesn’t *have* to be an issue. Your feedback meets my need for considering ways to improve my practice (as a therapist, not least). I am resolved to find more opportunities to given feedback, even when not directly requested.

      Some questions arising:

      o How do you feel about the ethics of giving feedback to individuals (some of whom may not have even got as far as enrolling themselves in the idea and aims of the initiative) when the focus of the therapy is the organisation?

      o How best to give feedback to the organisation, when it is the de facto “client” or “patient”?

      o As a potential recipient, how do you feel about receiving feedback in the way described in this post? Which needs of yours might it meet, and which not?

      - Bob

      • Re: Ethics – Can you ask people if they would like feedback? As you say unsolicited feedback can lead to bad outcomes.

        Re: Giving feedback – Show vulnerability (Lencioni Getting Naked). Just do the right thing :)

        Re: Being a recipient – For me personally, feedback is useful for help putting things in context, having an outside view can often help achieve the outcomes.You might call it encouragement.

  9. At the end of your great post (which I really did like), I feel like I would like a “Like” button at the bottom of your posts as this would fill my need to “Like” some of your posts, and keep track of them ;-)

    • Thanks for your comment. In fact, WordPress users will find a “like” button in the toolbar at the top of the browser window. If that’s not good for you, let me know and I’ll see if I can magic up an additional bottom-of-post like button.

      - Bob

  10. Thanks Bob – I never noticed it there! I have one at the bottom as a widget, but that’s fine now

  11. mag4automation said:

    Hej Bob,

    As I read through your article I was thinking of decision-making techniques I’ve seen heavily used here in Sweden. These techniques allowed, well most times, positive interaction and feedback. I found this article useful as to help stimulate ideas to do even a better job of having a positive relationship with my colleagues and a positive environment for idea exchange that can lead shorter feedback loops and perhaps improve the way we are operating….thanks for sharing the article..

  12. Hello Bob,

    I like this post as you dive thoroughly into each aspect of feedback to show how it would bring about the positive impact of receiving and giving feedback, and have certainly given me great tips with your RECEIVING FEEDBACK section.

    A tiny suggestion for potentially improving might be to add one great example of the type of conversation an individual might have in ASK FOR REFLECTION section; something similar to the way you did in RECEIVING FEEDBACK section. I feel it would benefit me enormously, and I hope it helps your other readers.

  13. Bob, I really liked your example dialogue in the “Receiving feedback” section. It helped me further my understanding of NVC in practice. I think it would help me if more of your posts had concrete examples.

  14. Hallo Bob,
    what I’ve found out while working with people is that most of them treat a feedback as a judgement, however it really doesn’t include any “judgement” in its pejorative sense. However it is what stop them from listening or exchaning any following information. I’ve been taught to give feedbacks in a way that a client can feel like a bird with growing wings however he is still fighting with a fear of a change or with his old beliefs.

    It’s so good to read your artictles, Bob. Thank you.

  15. farid said:

    most people (IMO) don’t suffer a shortage of feedback so much as a shortage of the quality of that feedback. If the primary motivation for feedback is the desire to improve, good quality feedback should seek to enrich the recipient’s understanding of the consequence of their choices.

    Most of the time we have the ability and skills to improve ourselves using good quality feedback, we just lack the information & context to aid a more complete perspective.

  16. Sabina Kamber (@sabina_agile) asks above in a comment for an example of ‘ask for reflection’.

    I recently came across a great website called The Communication Dojo in which Newt Bailey, an NVC trainer, imparts with examples some very basic ways to improve communication. In this video clip (http://www.communicationdojo.com/connected-conversation-process-instructional-video/) he and a partner demonstrate first a dysfunctional exchange, and then they improve it with a technique that he calls ‘Connected Conversation’. This demonstrates ‘asking for reflection’ !

    Using this specific technique slows down your thinking, stops you from immediately reacting, and connects you to your conversational partner. Of course, you wouldn’t use this all the time – that would be unwieldy – but you would use it in moments when you are not clear about what the other person is saying, or when you sense yourself becoming emotionally charged.

    In addition to the wonderful work on his website, Newt Bailey also participates in videos through Baynvc.org that can be seen there or also on Youtube (over 130 videos). BayNVC members act out similar scenarios for giving and receiving feedback, both at work, with youth, and in family situations. . Here is just one example from a workplace setting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tPeNWaTEVE

    What I like about this example is its relevance to everyday requests. An Yes/No answer to a simple question such as: Can you have X done by date Y? contains plenty of feedback and is often given without full disclosure and sometimes from a position of fear. This video shows how that might be improved. You don’t have to know a thing about NVC to relate to this and learn from it. (Note, there are follow-on segments, each one in a series having a number).

    I am passionate about NVC, Core Protocols, Dialogue, Feedback, and in general congruent communication and wish so much that I might have discovered this stuff much earlier in my career. I appreciate posts like this that help introduce the concepts to folks because it inspires me to keep going with my quest – especially when I read all the comments and realize the need that is out there.

  17. Bob,

    thanks for this. It’s clarified some things I didn’t understand about Core Protocols and NVC. Now I shall go look them out a bit more. I’ll have to check, but I think this fits nicely into Gerry Weinberg’s feedback approach to unlock the possible different layers of meaning. Lastly, you also nicely reminded me that I need to think about bringing this into the classroom more regularly so the students get their heads around this too.

    As to improvements, maybe you could tell us where you think Weinberg fits into what you wrote? Like Olaf, I think I’ll need to read this through again, but find it useful. Feedback is hard to do, and needs consideration more than we regularly think about. Both you and Olaf make me think more about these things so thanks to you both.

  18. David Lowe said:

    Bob, thanks for introducing me to the ideas of Rosenberg and NVC. It’s given me a lot to think about. When you highlighted that basic compliments don’t give much value, it made me keen to bring in more positive processes (actions to improve rather than moans or meaningless compliments) to our inspect and adapt processes; it’s all too easy to just compliment or moan without saying much!

  19. mdmejojo said:

    Hi Bob,

    Found your post at the right moment – I’ve had many job interviews, still no job. I request feedback from every rejector but have never received anything. I’m sure there are legal worries here, yet I wonder if there is a way I could ask that would reassure my Canadian prospects that I am asking a favour and cannot improve without their help.

    I am originally from England but value a very direct communication style; I think it’s personal as well as cultural, as my family and friends are far more “tactful” and like to use “hints” which I invariably miss, making me seem like an insensitive boar when the reverse is true. When people expect me to distill their meaning from an extremely convoluted statement designed to protect me, I feel despair. Experience has shown I will rarely if ever get the meaning correct. Requiring the massive mental processing it takes to figure out what people are trying to say seems offensive to me. It feels like they do not respect me or doubt my ability to handle the truth.

    Any suggestions?

    Thanks
    Jo

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