Thursday, June 17, 2010

Life Skills: Giving actionable feedback

Giving a colleague, roommate, or partner feedback is difficult. No one likes to be criticized. However, actionable feedback (i.e., constructive criticism or praise, AKA communication) is key to healthy working - and interpersonal - relationships. Here are some tips to delivering feedback in the most painless, useful form.
  1. Begin with the positive. People tend to focus on the negative, especially when they hear it from someone they wish to please, so it's even more important for you to emphasize the positive to avoid your small critique getting blown out of proportion. If people feel too threatened by the feedback they're getting, it's hard for them to absorb it. This is most important when you are just starting to give feedback - eventually you may develop an environment of continuous feedback, and people will welcome any input.
  2. Be specific. Give specific examples of the behavior in question. It may have made a strong impression on you, but the person receiving feedback may not have noticed anything unusual. However, don't let examples distract from your core point--people sometimes respond to examples by giving excuses for that specific instance. You can say, "This is one example that shows the behavior I mentioned, but I've noticed it other times."
  3. Make it actionable - suggest a future course of action.
  4. Remember to give positive feedback as well! If you like what someone is doing, let them know so that they keep doing it.
  5. Forgive and forget. Or as the great Jimmy Buffett would say, "breathe in, breathe out, move on!" This is good advice if you're giving feedback (don't bring up something repeatedly if you've already let the other person know of the issue, unless they don't make an effort to change), but even better if you're getting it! All input is good input, but one person's opinion does not define you.
The classic format for feedback is "When you (specific example of action) it makes me feel (how you feel). In the future, (alternative action)." This is dirt simple, but it works! The format forces you to think of both an example of the behavior and solution, and will signal to the recipient that feedback is coming.

The other thing to remember about feedback is that timing matters. Giving someone feedback when they're already down and out can make them feel like they can't do anything right, and there's no point in trying. At the same time, giving someone negative feedback after a big victory is just cruel. Although it's good to give immediate feedback, it's more likely to be acted on if you give it while someone is in the emotional state to hear it, like at lunch the day after a big event.

Some examples:
  • This morning in the staff meeting, when you complained about our agreed project deadline, I was caught off guard and unable to respond appropriately in front of the group. In the future, please come to me immediately with deadline concerns, and we'll decide on new work plans together.
  • Last night when you were playing music until 2:00 am, I couldn't get to sleep, so I was totally zoned in class today. Since I have classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, can we agree to turn the music and television off at midnight on Mondays and Wednesdays?
  • I thought the work you did on the presentation was great, and you could tell the client was really impressed. One little thing I noticed, though, is that they got distracted when you gave a stream of information at once, which meant we weren't getting all our points across. Next time try inserting breaks and giving them a chance to ask questions if they're confused.
  • Sweetie, I'm so excited that you were able to clean up the kitchen before our friends came over. Just to let you know, when you wash the dishes without scrubbing them, I end up redoing them later. Maybe you can use the sponge next time, and I can put them away instead?
  • Hey, so the other day when you made a joke about my "Spanish butt," it really hurt my feelings. I know you were just joking, but I'm really sensitive about my body. Can you try to refrain from making comments about it, even jokingly?

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