As challenging and vulnerable as receiving feedback can be, giving it can also be quite difficult. And for us to be successful leaders, teammates, parents, friends, spouses, and human beings, it’s important to give feedback effectively to those around us.
According to a study conducted by psychologist Tessa West of NYU for the NeuroLeadership Institute, we have an automatic fight-or-flight threat response in our nervous system when we’re receiving feedback, which exists just as significantly when we’re giving it. So, it’s essential to have some compassion for ourselves when we’re in situations where we have to give feedback to others. And it’s also important that we enhance our capacity—emotionally and practically—for giving feedback.
There are four key things to remember when giving feedback to others. Keeping these things in mind can help us get past the defensiveness and self-criticism that is often triggered by feedback, so that it can be well-received and have the positive impact we’re intending.
1. Intention. It’s critical to check in with ourselves about the intention behind our feedback. In other words, why are we giving it in the first place? Do we genuinely want the other person to be more successful? Are we annoyed with this person and want to let them know why? Do we have any conscious or unconscious bias? Are we trying to prove something or defend ourselves? Do we want to control them or the situation?
There are all kinds of reasons why we give feedback to others, and sometimes there is more than one. But being real with ourselves about our motivation can help us determine whether it’s even going to be helpful. Assuming we decide that it is, making sure our intention is genuine and positive will make it more likely that the person will be receptive to it. And by giving feedback to others on our team with positive intention, we set the tone for our culture in this regard.
2. Permission. Unsolicited feedback, even if it’s spot-on and valuable, can be hard to take and even disrespectful. Asking someone if they’re open to our feedback, while sometimes stressful, is important to do and much better than just launching into it. This is true even if we’re their boss, parent, or mentor, or in any other type of relationship where permission for our feedback may seem implied.
Making sure that we have explicit permission to give feedback shows that we respect and value the person to whom we’re giving it. It also usually makes feedback feel less like judgment and more like help, allowing the person to be more receptive to what we have to say. Creating a team standard that we have permission to give each other feedback is also important. And, even if we do that, asking someone for specific permission in the moment before giving it is essential.
3. Skill. Giving feedback effectively takes skill. And even though it can be challenging, it’s definitely something we can improve upon the more we practice and dedicate ourselves to doing it. Because giving and receiving feedback can be a vulnerable experience for everyone involved, it requires attention, commitment, awareness, and courage to do it well.
The more willing we are to do it, the more we can develop our skill of giving feedback successfully. And there are, of course, different ways to give feedback effectively. Oftentimes, we may give it directly and explicitly as part of a review, development conversation, or team debrief. Other times it may be subtler and not even seem like feedback at all, but more of a question, suggestion, or conversation.
4. Relationship. The most important aspect of giving effective feedback is the relationship we have with the person or people we’re giving it to. We can have the most positive intention, explicit permission, and a lot of skill in how we deliver it—but if our relationship isn’t strong or it’s actively strained, it’ll be very difficult for us to give feedback to someone and have them receive it well.
I could get the same exact feedback from two different people but react to it quite differently depending on my relationship with each of them. Let’s say, in one case, I know the person cares about me, appreciates me, and believes in me. I’m much more likely to be open to their feedback and to take it positively. Therefore, making sure the relationships we have are strong and authentic helps us ensure that we can give feedback effectively when we need to do so. If the person giving feedback is someone I don’t know as well or may have some unresolved issues with, it’s less likely that I’ll be open and take their feedback well.
If we find ourselves in a situation where we have to give feedback to someone with whom we don’t have a strong relationship, it’s important to know that this will definitely have an impact. Anything we can do to acknowledge this in an authentic way and work to enhance or improve the relationship will bene t our ability to provide feedback to them in the present moment and in the future.
All four of these things—intention, permission, skill, and relationship—are important to remember when giving feedback. And they’re also important to think about from a growth mindset perspective when receiving feedback. We want to be sure to check in with and pay attention to what the other person’s intention might be with their feedback for us, to explicitly grant others permission to give us feedback, to communicate about how we like feedback to be given, and to proactively work to strengthen our relationships with the people around us.
Giving and receiving feedback isn’t easy, but it’s so important for our growth and development, as well as that of our team. Being able to embrace and even enjoy the sweaty-palmed nature of feedback is something that can allow us and our team to perform our absolute best.
Feel free to leave a question or comment below.
* This is an excerpt from We’re All in This Together, by Mike Robbins, published by Hay House Business, April 2020