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How to Deliver Effective Feedback

December 15, 2022

Giving effective feedback is one of the most important skills needed to be successful at work, but speaking the truth or saying hard things is rarely easy. The outcome of your conversation hinges on psychological safety—if the other person is triggered by the feedback that you give, the only certainty is he or she will not hear it. 

Effective feedback requires careful planning, and it also depends on your ability to listen and know what's going on. After all, there are always two sides of the story. 

For example, two people are looking at a number on the ground. One person sees six, and the other sees the number nine. They’re looking at exactly the same data but from two very different perspectives. 

Here are some strategies for delivering effective feedback:

Practice empathic listening

A starting point of good feedback is empathic listening, or when you look and listen deeply beyond the words. 

Researchers suggest less than 10% of all the meaning we derive from feedback comes from the words we use. It's not what we say—it's how we say it and how we communicate it with our bodies. 

In this simple exercise, try sitting across from a colleague as he or she tells a story that has some emotional cues—something that matters to them. Study the face and the body language. Listen to the words, and pay attention to the syntax. When somebody feels seen and heard in an important conversation, they’re much more likely to open up and tell you what's really going on.

Be clear about why you're giving feedback

Ask yourself: “What do I want for myself, for the person, for the company?” 

If your intention is clear, you can always return to your core intention for the conversation—no matter how difficult the conversation gets, how many rabbit holes you go down, or how much someone might try to derail you. 

  1. Set context: The context of what took place is undeniable and irrefutable. For example: “At yesterday's meeting, you said to Jack that you thought his idea was crazy.” 
  2. Move into your interpretation of the facts, or a story that you tell yourself:  “When I heard you say that to Jack, I was concerned that maybe you didn't care about the other person's point of view. And I'm concerned because I don't think you're going to be successful if that's how others perceive you.” In other words, that's my interpretation of what I saw happen. 
  3. Hear the other point of view: “I realized that I may not have the full picture. I may not know fully what was going on for you in that moment. So I want to understand more. Perhaps you can tell me more about what the experience looked and felt like so that together we can find a way to ensure that you or the team don't get derailed by this again in the future.”

Saying this in a tentative tone helps the other person understand that you're not prejudging the outcome. If the feedback triggers somebody and he or she gets angry, upset, nervous, or confused, allow for the potential that you may have to have more than one conversation. And of course, if you're going to have a hard conversation, always do it in private. 

Remember these steps:

  • These are the facts
  • This is what I saw happen
  • This is my interpretation of what happened
  • And now I want to hear your point of view and what you have to say 

Let the other person process what you’ve said

Allow time for processing and responding thoughtfully. If this person goes into a fight, flight, or freeze response, stop. Offer a chance to get back into a place where he or she can think and respond in a productive way. 

Never share anonymous feedback 

It's just gossip that will trigger somebody. Make sure you've seen, heard, or been present when some of these challenges arise that you're sharing feedback on.

Follow up after giving feedback

Send a note, and check in at the next 1:1. Talk to other stakeholders to make certain that the feedback has been internalized and that they're seeing change, whatever that may be.

Remember: Without psychological safety, feedback will be tough for you and the other person. That said, keep in mind that feedback isn’t always punitive. Appreciative feedback can also be a powerful way to reassure your employees and reinforce the things they’re doing well.

As a manager, you can also model giving and receiving feedback. In a Founders + Leaders roundtable, Netflix’s former vice president of engineering Matt Marenghi suggested sharing the feedback that you received yourself. For example, you could tell a select group of employees: “Here are the top three things that I heard that surprised me. And I want everybody to know that these are things that I agree with and I need to work on so you can all help me get better at it.” 

By modeling it yourself, effective feedback can become deeply embedded in your startup’s culture and “just sort of finds its way into this daily and weekly pattern of behavior,” Marenghi adds.

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