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4 Do's (and 4 Don'ts) for mastering the art of giving feedback

While the process of being critiqued is never fun, it is frequently the pathway to the next level of performance and is critical to the overall health of personal relationships and organizations alike.

Let me get started by saying that I hate Yelp. Actually – to be fair – I dislike the world that Yelp and similar review platforms have created. It has opened the door for everyone to voice their opinion and, in many cases, those unfettered and caustic jibes are better left unsaid.


We have seemingly lost our social consciousness: It seems that anyone can say anything, anytime, and be either clueless or non-responsible as to the impact their imprudent comments might have on someone else and their business. And then there are the character attacks.


Don’t get me started.


Let me clarify by stating that I believe feedback is important. People need to know how they are doing to be able to improve.


Whether providing feedback to a team member, employee, service provider, or even a client, information is often required to keep things on track and provide growth opportunities. How they are critiqued, however, makes all the difference.

Be specific

Pick a significant incident, an event that illustrates a key problem that needs changing, or a pattern of deficiency, such as the inability to do certain parts of a job well. It demoralizes people just to hear that they are doing “something” wrong without knowing what the specifics are so they can change.


Focus on the specifics, saying what the person did well, what was done poorly, and how it could be changed. Don’t beat around the bush or be oblique or evasive; it will muddy the real message.


This, of course, is akin to the advice to couples about the “XYZ” statement of a grievance: Say exactly what the problem is, what’s wrong with it or how it makes you feel, and what could be changed. “Specificity,” Levinson points out, “is just as important for praise as for criticism. I won’t say that vague praise has no effect at all, but it doesn’t have much, and you can’t learn from it.”


Offer a solution

The critic, like all useful feedback, should point to a way to fix the problem. Otherwise, it leaves the recipient frustrated, demoralized, or demotivated. The critic may open the door to possibilities and alternatives that the person did not realize were there, or simply sensitize them to deficiencies that need attention — but should include suggestions about how to take care of these problems.


Be present

Critiques, like praise, are most effective face-to-face and in private. People who are uncomfortable giving criticism—or offering praise—are likely to ease the burden on themselves by doing it at a distance, such as in a memo. But this makes the communication too impersonal and robs the person receiving it of an opportunity for a response or clarification.


Be sensitive

This is a call for empathy, for being attuned to the impact of what you say and how you say it on the person at the receiving end. Managers who have little empathy, Levinson points out, are most prone to giving feedback in a hurtful fashion, such as the withering put-down.


“The net effect of such criticism is destructive; instead of opening the way for a corrective, it creates an emotional backlash of resentment, bitterness, defensiveness, and distance.”


Additionally, there are a few key rules for any critique to ensure the information being provided will be helpful.


Do not react emotionally

While the situation that prompted the critique may have aroused your emotions (eg. anger, frustration, disappointment), do not respond emotionally. Take the time required to calm down or get centered and then have a composed discussion. An emotional response will often trigger a comparable response, with the net effect of making the situation worse.


Do not delay

When issues occur, respond the first time every time. Many assume that a given behavior is a “one-off,” assume it will not happen again, and consequently fail to deal with it immediately. A delay gives unconscious permission to the person doing the behavior, and the more they are allowed to repeat the action, the more difficult it will be to provide effective feedback and correction.


Do not be vague

To be effective, a critique must be targeted and specific. The goal is growth and behavior modification, and the more specific the information is, the more helpful it will be in eliciting a positive response.


Do not be personal

Character assassination is never an option. Whether or not you like the person you are critiquing, personality is not the issue. It is the specific behavior that is to be dealt with. While true that a given action may flow from their personality, a critique should never be an attack on the person. If the same issue continues to emerge, recommending counseling might be a valid option.


We all need positive feedback to improve. While the process of being critiqued is never fun, it is frequently the pathway to the next level of performance and is critical to the overall health of personal relationships and organizations alike. Done poorly, they can ruin relationships and sow the seeds for destruction. Done well, positive critiques will pave the way forward to success.


By Carl Medford


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