“Can I have a word?…” – The Elusive Art of Feedback

If there’s one life skill everyone needs to learn, it’s the art of giving feedback. Track back through any disagreement, fall-out, walk-out or other any other act of frustration, and you’re bound to discover a resounding lack of skilful feedback somewhere along the line.

Back in the day when I was in HR management, the first question I’d ask anyone coming for advice on how to deal with a recalcitrant employee/boss/colleague* (*delete as appropriate) was, “have you told them?” Invariably the answers would include: “well, sort of…”; “they should have picked it up by now….”; “there’s no point in trying….”; “here’s a copy of the warning letter….”; “I tried but they ignored me…”. Ranging from the meek and inoffensive through to the downright brutal, feedback was generally too little, too late, and poorly constructed.IMG_1771


The admirable relationship counselling organisation, Relate, conducted some fascinating research into how couples respond to feedback from each other.

  • 4:1 – In a reasonably stable relationship, one partner needed to hear four pieces of complimentary feedback, in order to accept one piece of constructive criticism.
  • 7:1 – In a rockier relationship, where one or both partners were mistrusting, there needed to be at least seven complimentary pieces of feedback given, in order for one piece of constructive criticism to be heard and accepted.

At home or at work, we need feedback to stay sane. Some of us ‘need’ positive feedback to maintain self-esteem. Other personality types expect feedback less often but want to know exactly how they are performing. One thing is for sure, from the age of 5 years onwards, the frequency of feedback we receive declines and what feedback we do get tends to be more about criticism than praise. So here are some top coaching tips that will help you hone your feedback skills.

Positive Feedback

  • Spot opportunities. Let people know when you like what they’ve done. Think of this as building up the emotional bank account. (But don’t over-do it or you’ll just come across as patronising.)
  • Be descriptive. “I really like the way you handled that meeting, you asked some good questions and made sure everyone could contribute”. (This is much more helpful than “good job”!)
  • Mean it. If you genuinely think something’s worth praising, act on it. (Don’t go dishing it out when you don’t really mean it, people will soon see through it.)
  • Own it. If someone impresses you, tell them in person, don’t just expect to pass it on via their boss or colleague.

Constructive Criticism

  • Notice it. When do you think or feel something needs addressing? How often do you act on it. Is it something you can let go as a one-off. Twice? Maybe a coincidence. Three times or more? This is a pattern and you need to act quickly.
  • Do not criticise in public. Whether you book a time and a place to review the incident, or need to feedback on the spot, make sure you don’t have an audience.
  • Ask them first. If there’s time, ask them how they thought it went. They may show insight straight away, and if not, at least you know how much work you need to do to fill the gap.
  • Grasp the nettle. Sometimes things need nipping in the bud. Don’t sit on guilty knowledge when you know you have a moral or professional duty to act. Giving feedback is at times a courageous act, but better to raise the issue than to let it fester.

Giving feedback is one of the major topics that almost always comes up in coaching. People invariably don’t get enough feedback full stop. Or if they do, it’s poorly formulated and destructive. So here’s a challenge, over the next week, see if you can give out at least four pieces of positive feedback, to colleagues, family, people in shops or restaurants, whoever deserves it. They might not always hug you on the spot, or even thank you, but you will be leaving a warm, quiet glow behind you. Go on, we might just change the world!







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