I am regularly asked for suggestions on how to give others constructive feedback. This can be an uncomfortable task as most people do not want the recipient to feel criticized while at the same time they do want to communicate information regarding something that needs to change. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to how to give feedback without the other person feeling criticized. On one hand, you cannot control how another person receives feedback. On the other hand, you can control how you deliver that feedback. So here are so general tips that will help guide your practice of giving feedback, however they are in no way a guarantee that the recipient will be happy afterward.
To start off, it is important to recognize what your goal is in giving someone constructive feedback. Depending on your goal, this will significantly influence what tact you might take. If your goal is to make the person feel incompetent and shame them into changing their behavior, disregard everything I say below. In fact, if that is your goal I doubt you are even reading this blog post.
One of the most basic facts to keep in mind is that people like to know that they are appreciated. This is true for everyone. When employees are surveyed about what would make their jobs more enjoyable, feeling appreciated is higher on the list than a raise. So it makes sense that when you are giving someone constructive feedback, they are most likely going to respond well to that feedback if they feel appreciated before and after that feedback. Some recommend simple techniques like the sandwich method where you sandwich constructive feedback with positive feedback on both sides (start and end with encouragement).
If that is not your style or if that seems artificial for some situations, another way of framing constructive feedback is by communicating your support of the person and how the constructive feedback will allow them to do things more efficiently or professionally. After all, constructive feedback is all about teaching someone how to do something better, hence benefiting them. If the recipient of the feedback feels like you are a teacher, aimed at helping them improve themselves and how they do things, then your feedback is more likely to be welcomed.
Now there is usually a person who tells me, “Ya, but you don’t know this person that I have to deal with,” suggesting that the person who needs the feedback is particularly difficult to deal with. These people can often be defensive and it can be difficult to find things about them or their work that deserves positive feedback. Sadly, when someone has developed an off-putting style like this they are usually not presented with much positive recognition. If it is difficult to find things to appreciate about them, recognize them for doing neutral things. It won’t seem like it is having an impact overnight, but expressing sincere appreciation (even for neutral things) has a positive impact on people. It satisfies a basic human need.
So to sum this up in tip-form:
- Practice the regular habit of expressing sincere appreciation to those you supervise and work with.
- Provide positive feedback that outweighs (in number or quality) constructive feedback.
- Explain constructive feedback in terms of helping the person receiving the feedback (teaching a better way).
- When dealing with a defensive personality, start with expressing appreciation for neutral behaviors (those that are most often overlooked or assumed).
And finally, always remember that you have control over how you give feedback, not how the person reacts to hearing feedback. Expressing sincere appreciation for someone lets them know that you are on their side and rooting for their success. When someone feels like you are their supporter, your feedback is more likely to be taken as instruction and not criticism.
Shawn Healy, PhD