For many of us, just hearing the word “feedback” makes us brace for impact—the word alone is the first of two shoes dropping.
What a shame. Feedback is how we learn and grow. It is the distillation of what it feels like to work together, the experiential data that, if delivered skillfully and with care, feeds into our own, and our colleagues’, growth and evolution.
Without feedback, the only thing we all have to go on is our own, hyper-filtered story about what others think of us. That story is missing most of the important details about how we are experienced by others.
Perhaps the issue is that we’re not particularly skilled at giving or receiving feedback since we do it so rarely. To help bridge that gap, here are some tips to get you out of the feedback starting blocks.
- Start with SBI. It stands for “Situation” “Behavior” and “Impact” and it is the foundation of all good feedback. This is the practice of phrasing feedback as, “When we were in [situation], you [behavior] and that had [impact] on me.” SBI is foundational because it bounds the feedback to a time, a place, and a specific set of actions and their impact on you. You aren’t giving someone feedback about them as a person, and you are not claiming that your experience with their behavior is universal. You are simply describing your own experience with that behavior in a way that it can safely be discussed. Plus, the SBI phrasing makes the conversation much more actionable because it is so specific.
- Keep it positive. “Feedback” is often a dirty word because we only share what’s not working. I remember once being told by a colleague that he wanted to stay on a call with me after a client dropped off, and naturally I got nervous. It turned out his “feedback” was something very positive. If we only give feedback – and only use the word “feedback” – when we have a criticism, it’s no wonder that the word can feel heavy and that hearts start racing when we hear it.
- Remember the 5:1 ratio. According to Harvard Business Review, in the best-performing teams, the ratio of positive to negative feedback is a whopping 5.6 to 1. And remember that positive feedback also is best using an SBI structure. Don’t say “Great work on those deliverables,” say “I was so excited when I read that deck you wrote, because the headlines really popped, and they brought the data to life for me.”
- Never say “always” or “never.” “Always” and “never” statements are, by definition, about a person and not about her behaviors. They’re both inaccurate (no one does anything “always”) and they are much more likely to be experienced as personal attacks. Don’t use those words.
- It’s OK to talk about your own feelings. This is an important detail under the “impact” column of the SBI framework, as long as you won’t get too emotional if you share your feelings. Sharing feelings can help make the experience of impact more real and vivid, and it can help calibrate how big an impact a specific behavior is having. “During the final days of our project, when we were all pushing towards the deadline, you being less responsive than normal to my emails made me feel worried that we weren’t going to hear back from you in time on the final deliverables. I found that being worried made it harder for me to focus at a crucial juncture in the project, and I also had to spend more time managing the team to help fill the information gap and calm their nerves.”
- Stay curious. Remember that, if you are the person giving feedback, you are only describing your own experiences. You are not speaking the Ultimate Truth. Find a balance between speaking and listening, so that you can remain open to different interpretations of what happened. Similarly, as the person hearing feedback, try to stay curious. Cultivate genuine interest in what you are hearing, and avoid the mental trap of an internal dialogue refuting every point being made (or, worse, defending yourself at every turn to explain away what you’re hearing). What you are hearing is someone else’s truth. If it is different from your truth, your job is not to be right, it is to understand why you and another person—someone you like and respect—have such different perceptions of the same events.
- Reiterate what you’ve heard in your own words. One of the best ways to ensure that the person giving feedback feels validated and heard is to articulate back what you’ve been told. “So, I understand that these three behaviors—behavior 1, 2 and 3—are often having this impact on you and the team. Is that right?”
- This is not the time for ‘the kitchen sink.’ If you’re new to giving feedback, or if you give it infrequently, it can be tempting, when you get the courage to share your experience, to share absolutely everything. I call this the “and here’s another thing” trap. The conversation you’re having today is not a one-time occurrence, it is the first in a series of dialogues that should get easier over time. Your goal is twofold: (1) To have a productive conversation about a specific set of behaviors, both positive and negative, that you want to discuss; (2) To have a conversation that is positive enough for both people that you both are more likely to have conversations like this in the future. If you overdo it and share everything that’s ever bugged you about that someone, you’re likely breaking the 5:1 ratio and, worse, you could make it harder to have a similar conversation in the future. That’s not a good outcome for you or for your colleague.
- Make a plan. The best feedback conversations result in ‘contracting’ between the people involved about what both will aim to do more and less of in the future. It might take some time for both people to develop this plan, and that’s OK. Come back together to discuss the boiled-down version of what both of you will do in the future, and agree to check in on progress in two months’ time (or whatever interval works for you). This drives accountability and signs you both up for a productive follow-up conversation.
- Express receptivity. if you are the person receiving feedback, and especially if you are senior to the person giving feedback, the onus is on you to make this experience positive and productive. Part of your job, in addition to listening intently and with curiosity, is to overcome the natural expectation that more-junior people don’t give constructive feedback to more-senior people. Recognize that the person sitting across from you feels like they are taking a risk, and do everything you can to mitigate that feeling. The way you behave during and after this conversation will either justify this fear or chip away at it.
A useful feedback conversation is a choice by two people to invest in their relationship, to truly listen to each other, and to work together to become better partners. It’s not easy, and while it is going on it can certainly feel hard or unpleasant. But no person and no organizational culture can possibly reach their full potential without giving and receiving effective feedback. Have at it!