How to give constructive feedback


FeedbackDo you know how airplanes can keep a given course to fly you to your destination? They oscillate around the trajectory: a small deviation to the left, then coming back to the course, then another small deviation to the right, then coming back again, and so on, until they reach the destination. In order to make this possible, there are some systems which give feedback to the pilot (be it human or automatic), so he knows what to do to keep the plane on course.

Think now of the human being: we set our “destination” by defining goals, then we head towards it. How do we know if we are on the right path? We need feedback, of course. But telling you “Stop! What you do is fully wrong!” does not give you information about what to do to correct your course. A possible scenario would be that you would ignore my feedback and keep on moving. Or you could stop and wait. Or you could choose to never speak to me again.

For the feedback to work, it has to follow several rules:

1. Be specific

If you tell me “I loved your presentation”, I can’t get any useful info out of your words (I might even think that you want to flatter me). What if you told me “I liked your presentation because you made your points so clear! You kept the eye contact with your audience all the time, so they were really paying attention.”? This gives me clues about what the ingredients of my success were, so if I want it repeated, I should keep on doing those positive things again.

2. Be balanced

We were wrongly taught in school that feedback is always negative. Although they may realize this is wrong, many people still get upset when given feedback. If you have negative things to say about a performance, you could balance them with some positive facts. Rather than “you crowded your slides with so much info that you made everybody sick”, you could say “your presentation was so thorough, you offered so many details; however, you know how short the attention span of people is; if you tried to put less info on the slides, maybe they would not have missed some of the interesting points you made”. And you did not lie: it’s true, most people have a short attention span.

3. Be timely

Let’s suppose we are friends and you tell me “you remember, ten years ago, although I liked you very much, I could not stand the way you used to dress, because you made such strange color combinations, that everybody was laughing behind your back!”. Thank you very much for such a feedback! Why didn’t you tell me that 10 years ago, when I could have done something about that?

4. Be constructive

As mentioned before, feedback has the purpose to help us correct our trajectory. Embarrassing people and making them feel bad is one thing, helping them see what they do wrong is another. This is where many parents go wrong: they succeed to embarrass their children so badly, and later on, they have such angelic remarks: “I don’t know why my little John is so shy and clumsy! I warned him since early childhood that he is no good and people won’t give a dime on him later on in life!” We need to build self confidence in children if we want them to become responsible adults.

One additional point: give feedback only when you are asked for. If it is not desired, and it is not expected, why waste your time and energy in giving it?

Yet, there are some exceptions to this, such as when you manage a team and giving feedback is part of your job. Or when you want to raise good children. Or when else? Can you add something to the list?

7 Comments

  1. Simonne,
    That is a nice analogy to plane trajectory. I would like to add that Stephen Covey makes a few comparisons like these. He likened a person’s way to success to a compass where one has to check his trajectory with the North. And another analogy is when you go in the forest chopping trees to free your way. To check where you should go, you climb the highest tree and look from above.
    If we are too busy with our workload, we need some feedback from people who can see from above, who have higher vision of life’s principles and values.

    Maybe I am too general, but these things came to my mind… Thank you for a nice article.

  2. by default the new blogs system are including comments functionality on posts

    comments means feedback and dialogue

    so every blog is asking, even begging for feedback

  3. Alex, I like that forest analogy. Shamefully for me, I did not read Stephen Covey yet, although I heard a lot about his books.

    Mihai, you are fully right. I took me quite a long while to understand that dialogue is eventually the essence of blogging.

  4. That was a wonderful post…

    No but seriously, it was a good post. It contained a bunch of common sense but the thing is that every generation has to learn that. Also I found point 3 funny.

  5. Yes to that post. I will add that my entire life has improved since I have been consciously being good to people. I’ve discovered that insecurity is one of the most deleterious things people suffer. Insecure people are unpredictable and a little positive treatment has never hurt anyone.

    Encouragement. Polite questions that assume the person is wise enough to have the answer. Praise for interesting thinking and good use of the language. Nothing empty just to say something.

    Blogging has brought me in contact with people I would otherwise never have known, and fortunately, not all of them sell Viagra.

  6. Thank you very much, Church of Integrity and Judith in Umbria for your thoughts. Yes, Judith, I also met a lot of great people thanks to blogging.

  7. Steven Covey is a great influence for this conversation. One of the founding ideas behind his 7 Habits programme is that between stimulus and response there exists a space. This is freedom of choice. Unless we have training and experience we cannot make best use of that space to choose the right response.

    Feedback is a vital ingredient of this, enabling people to improve the quality of how the respond to life’s stimuli.

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