How to give effective feedback and have honest conversations

Learning to give and receive feedback is at the core of management. Whether you’re in a 121 situation or working with a team, the ability to immerse yourself in a climate of feedback can make a huge difference to your performance. Yet many of us struggle with the mechanics of feedback and will sometimes go to great lengths to keep it at bay – both in terms of giving and receiving feedback.

In most organisations, appraisal systems are in place as a way to ensure that staff are working towards or hitting objectives. Usually these will be a combination of performance based metrics – judged on whether you did or didn’t do something – and softer interpersonal skills – which tend to be more subjective and related to behaviour and attitudes.

Because hard skills tend to be more cut and dry, feedback can be easier to give because it’s easy to identify what wasn’t quite right and how to improve going forward. Feedback therefore comes from an objective place. As a simple example, if you start work at 9am but a team member frequently doesn’t show until 9.30am, there’s a legitimate reason to pull them aside, explain the situation and impact it has, understand if there are any underlying reasons for the late behaviour and offer up a solution that works for both parties. It is the softer skills which can be harder to develop through feedback as these are where emotions can often come into play. By increasing our own self awareness, it can increase our ability to accept and provide feedback in a way that leads to growth rather than defensiveness. 

Beliefs that support feedback

Within the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, there are a number of presuppositions (beliefs) that can support you in maximising your potential in every area of your life. Incorporating these beliefs into the way you give and receive feedback will support your capacity for acceptance and help you in creating a team culture where feedback is actively encouraged as opposed to being shied away from. 

1. There is no failure, only feedback and learning

Consider for a moment your view on failure. Is it something you actively avoid, or do you welcome the opportunity to learn from it? Some of the most successful people in the world are a result of their failures. Failure gives us an opportunity to learn and grow. It gives us permission to take calculated risks. It increases our capacity for creativity. Living by this belief means that the ability to learn from feedback becomes second nature to us.

2. Everyone's perception is their truth

We only have perception. Your experience of a situation is your perception, based on your past experiences, thoughts and beliefs. I might experience the exact same situation completely differently, because I’ve come at it from my own unique perspective.

That does not make our interpretation right or wrong, it just makes it true for us. By accepting a perception from someone else, we are accepting that part of ourselves as they experience it. This can also boost the self-esteem of the giver of the feedback, as we are acknowledging their map of the world. If we do not accept their feedback, we do not accept that part of who they are.

It’s useful to consider this before you give feedback to your team. Are you considering the area you’re looking to give feedback on from a different perspective? How could the way you experience it be different from the way others experience it? Does that change how you might deliver the feedback?

3. What we recognise in others is true for ourselves

Very often, we can dissociate from characteristics that we don’t like in others – these are our blind spots and this is where the most powerful learning lies!   

If we can recognise a certain trait or characteristic in others, we must have that same trait or characteristic in ourselves. This doesn’t mean that it shows up in exactly the same way or in exactly the same context, but we have that structure within our thinking. What can you learn from this level of awareness?

It is the structure we hold within that influences our perception and our feelings towards what we experience outside of ourselves. If you can identify with the traits that you recognise within others, your feedback comes from a place of identification – you can put yourself in their shoes and in doing so create a connection with the other person that increases the likelihood that we will give the feedback in a way that will be accepted. If you give feedback prior to recognising how you are alike, you run the risk of giving it in a way that comes across in a ‘holier than thou’ way.

4. The attributes we recognise in others mirrors the same within ourselves

There is only a very subtle difference between this presupposition and that previous. As already mentioned, we recognise attributes in others because we have the structure of those attributes within ourselves. Those traits in others (good and bad) that affect us emotionally (e.g. through frustration) are those very same traits in which we have an imbalance in some way. For example, we might be frustrated by what we see as aggression in someone else because we need more assertiveness within ourselves.

It is our frustration with our previous inability to develop this aspect of ourselves that we project on to this other person who is mirroring our imbalance back to us. It may equally be that we have too much of what we see in the other.

As managers, we have to work with numerous different personalities and not everyone will think and behave in the same way as you. In some cases, this may result in frustration however if you can change the perception within yourself, the way you respond to other people will change. And the less energy you waste through negative direction, the more you’ll be able to focus your energy in areas that will get you results (and the better your team will respond to feedback).

Before being able to give feedback in a way that encourages growth, we have to be able to receive feedback in such a way.

Receiving feedback

Our ability to receive feedback is central to continuous learning and growth, as well as being key to healthy, sustainable relationships, both in business and your personal life. Think about the last time you received negative feedback – how did you respond? In what way did your response serve you?

While everyone responds differently to feedback, there are a number of things that you can practice in order to help in this area.

  • Get yourself into a resourceful state: if you know that you are going to receive feedback that might normally trigger an emotional reaction from you (e.g. defensiveness), try to replicate a state that has worked well for you in the past. It could be one of learning, openness, self-confidence, humility or curiosity. 
  • Remind yourself of the beliefs above; what can you learn from the feedback? Is the giver of the feedback coming at it from the same perspective as you? How is the giver of the feedback reflecting parts of their own traits on to you? How is the giver of the feedback similar to you?
  • Respond in a way that presupposes acceptance, saying things like ‘in what ways do I do this?’ ‘What effect does this have on you?’ (use present tense). You are much more likely to get feedback in a way that will support your growth in this way.
  • If the feedback is personally challenging or uncomfortable, it can help to take a step back as if you are an observer of the feedback (dissociate). Having dissociated, check what further personal resources you need to be able to accept the feedback (e.g. do you need to change your state). Give yourself those resources before stepping back into your own shoes (associating) in order to accept the feedback and learn from it. If you know that you struggle to receive feedback, it might help to practice this in your imagination with feedback that you either anticipate getting or that you’ve previously received and found difficult at the time. 
  • Take full responsibility for building and maintaining rapport with the giver of the feedback, even if the giver is not taking responsibility for this themselves. 
  • Check out what it is that you can do instead. Ask ‘what do I have to do for you to know that I do (whatever the giver is saying you don’t do or vice versa)?’
  • To fully take the feedback on board and strengthen your relationship with the giver, imagine yourself with the feedback in place and check that this is what they mean. Step back and imagine yourself as the other person and ensure that what is happening is a win/win.

Remember that the purpose of this is to create a climate of feedback amongst your team so the effect of accepting feedback in this way is to encourage the giver to want to give more feedback in the future. 

Giving feedback

When giving feedback, it can be useful to remember that most employees want to know what they can do to improve their performance. They don’t want to wait until their appraisal or performance review; feedback needs to be timely and relevant to allow your team to act on it immediately. Try not to focus constructive feedback solely on those who need to make the largest improvement; top performers also crave feedback. If you don’t have any direct feedback for them to improve in their current role, think about how you can broaden their skills. Without doing so, you risk losing your best people. 

Although this guide has focused predominantly on feedback that encourages some sort of change, don’t underestimate the power of positive feedback. Studies show that on the whole, managers believe that they give more positive feedback than their team actually perceives. In other words, if you think you give a lot of praise, it won’t hurt to give more. And if you know that you’re not one to dish out the positivity, amp it up tenfold! 

A simple google search will throw up all sorts of different feedback models. Broadly though, they follow these steps:

  1. Situation: set the context e.g. when I see you in meetings…
  2. Behaviour: outline the behaviour you have observed (from your perspective) e.g. you seem disengaged as you consistently check your phone  
  3. Impact: explain what impact their behaviour has e.g. this can make the speaker feel like they’re not being listened to and risks you not having all the information
  4. Pause: for the other person’s input e.g. does that seem like a fair comment? What’s your experience of our meetings?
  5. Solution: find a mutual solution e.g. if the person feels like their ideas aren’t valued, reassure them and ask them what would need to be true for them to feel like their ideas are valued. 

At one point, the sandwich feedback model became popular. This is where you begin with positive, confidence building praise for the best aspects of your team member’s performance, then feedback the more critical observations and talk about how improvements can be made and finally round off with more positive feedback. The challenge lies where the negative feedback is perceived to be an attack on the person at an identity level. This threatens our ego and results in this becoming the primary takeaway for the individual. This reduces the ability of an individual to use the feedback as a learning opportunity as it can be seen purely as criticism. Meaning neither of you will get a desired outcome. 

Here are some additional steps that you can take to help ensure that the feedback you have to give is received in a way that enhances learning:

  • Check that you are in rapport with the person with whom you are about to give feedback. When you know you are about to deliver feedback to someone which might be uncomfortable for the receiver, it can be easy to tense up and lose the rapport that you have built up with the person. Do everything you can to maintain the rapport. If you follow the steps in this guide to create a culture of feedback and honest conversations, you will find that this becomes second nature.
  • Before delivering the feedback, ask yourself how the feedback is as true about you as it is for your team member. It might show up in a completely different area of your life or under a slightly different guise, but the structure will be there somewhere. By identifying with this, you will create a connectedness in your thinking and in the way you offer the feedback.
  • Ask yourself what are you trying to achieve as a result of giving this feedback. How will you know that you have achieved this? 
  • Frame the feedback first to say how it has come about or what area of performance it relates to, so that you can warm up the receiver to what you are going to say next.
  • If the other person doesn’t immediately accept the feedback, find another way of giving it so they can understand what you are offering them. Remember that their ability to receive the feedback is a measure of your ability to give it.
  • Maintain direct eye contact and imagine the receiver of the feedback both accepting and using the feedback constructively as you do. This will help to deliver it in a positive way, focusing on the outcome.
  • Ask the receiver of the feedback to tell you what they are going to do with the information. 
Focus on the outcome, not the problem

‘Don’t think about kangaroos’. Is that possible? I doubt it. The reason for this is that your unconscious mind cannot recognise negatives. So if you tell someone ‘not’ to do something, you are actually programming them to do it. However if you program them to focus on the outcome e.g. change ‘don’t be late’ to ‘arrive at 9am’, you are dramatically increasing the chances that this is what they will do. 

As with everything, the more practise you have in giving feedback, the better you will become at your delivery and the easier it will be. By actively creating a culture where honest conversations can be had, you will find that your team members become receptive to feedback, striving to reach their potential and benefitting them both now and for the future.

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