Give feedback that makes sense


When you say apple, do others hear orange? Use these tips to give helpful feedback that others will understand and appreciate.

Trust me for a minute and breathe. That all-the-way-down-to-the-diaphragm breathing. In ... out ... in ... out. Now close your eyes and imagine a workplace where employees deeply respect one another. Where contributions large and small are acknowledged in a powerful way. Where folks honestly and compassionately address issues before they grow too big to manage. A world where Andrea can express to Jon and Beth exactly what she needs and how she needs it to do her job better. A world where Jon and Beth appreciate knowing Andrea's needs and would move mountains to make it happen.

Paradise? Yes. But also at least partly within reach for those of us who are willing to become students of the concept of feedback, that emotionally charged experience that has made us feel good and bad, competent and discouraged.

The first steps

If you're on board now as a willing student, read and consider these simple (but not always easy) feedback tips. Pick one suggestion and experiment with it today. As Jim Carrey's character learned in the hit movie Bruce Almighty, "Be the miracle you want to see in the world."

1. Push past your resistance. Do you ever wonder why we don't give or receive more positive feedback? There are two issues at play here. "Seventy-five percent of the time, an owner or manager thinks he or she is providing meaningful, impactful, behavior-changing feedback," says Sheila Grosdidier, RVT, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and a consultant for VMC Inc. in Evergreen, Colo. "But to team members, it's not meaningful. Often, both individuals are giving monologues in the same room."

The second problem is that offering even positive feedback is tough. You might feel awkward or worry that it's time-consuming or unnecessary. "I don't know how to do it," you might say. "I don't want to be perceived as 'weak' by praising others." Or, "I feel silly." If any of these statements rings true, acknowledge those feelings and give it a go anyway.

2. Show, don't tell. "Great job this morning, Jennifer," is a nice gesture but not nearly as helpful as, "Jennifer, I appreciate your willingness to cover the phones when the receptionist called in sick this morning. Thank you for your commitment to making the front desk run as smoothly as possible in her absence, even when it meant canceling your own lunch plans. It meant a lot to me and I know the rest of the team appreciated your efforts, too." Remember, it's important to be timely and specific when you give feedback. Describe your co-worker's helpful actions and how her behavior affected you.

How did you feel?

3. Express yourself in a fresh way. Most often, a thoughtful conversation is just right, but heartfelt and original gestures can speak volumes, too. Debbie Allaben Gair, CVPM, a Firstline board member and owner of Bridging the Gap in Sparta, Mich., once sent flowers to the wife of a speaker who went out of his way to speak at a conference Gair helped organize. "We put a note on the bouquet that said, 'Thanks. We're so grateful for his message.' The speaker said that neither he nor his wife ever forgot the gesture," Gair says.

4. Focus on the problem, not the person. Sharing negative or constructive feedback is in-its-own-league tough because it sometimes requires us to correct another person's behavior or performance. We don't want to be mean, and who actually likes confrontation? Rest assured, nasty confrontations don't work anyway. To give valuable feedback, you must be tuned in, sensitive, and honest.

5. Offer your comments as perceptions. So often we don't know the whole story. Take Wendy, for example. She's scheduled to work till 5 every evening. At 5 p.m. and not a minute later, she grabs her jacket and purse and she's out the door. Most days it's not an issue, but sometimes her quick exit leaves others taking care of last-minute needs, and resentment builds.

In a private conversation at an appropriate time, you might say, "Wendy, my perception is that you watch the clock the last half hour every day and that your priority is to get out the door rather than making sure the day's work is done. Is this a fair perception or is there more going on here?" Maybe Wendy has to pick up her child by 5:15 every day to avoid exorbitant late fees from her day care provider. Knowing this can help the two of you find a solution that works for everybody.

The art of receiving feedback

Maybe, though, this behavior is simply a holdover from Wendy's previous job and she has no idea that others find it offensive. Either way, it's kindest to explain your perception so she has the chance to change.

6. Be an honest broker. Establish yourself as a compassionate, honest straight shooter. Trust in a relationship allows for a continuous give and take of feedback and communication. Others might not always like what you have to say, but they will respect you if you always listen and respond directly and fairly.

7. Request feedback of all flavors. Let co-workers know that you're a willing spirit, that you want to do the best job you can, and that you're always open to feedback and constructive suggestions of all kinds. Someone who solicits feedback, listens carefully, and acts on those messages that ring true can be a powerful model for others.

Offering feedback can be a difficult, and even daunting, task. But choosing the right approach can mean the difference between words that hurt, offend, or go unnoticed and feedback that's heard and acted upon cheerfully or with grace. So start practicing honest, thoughtful feedback. You'll be amazed by the change in the way others listen and respond to your words.

Kara Lynch is a freelance writer in Lawrence, Kan. Please send your questions or comments to

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