in Uttarakhand, India
Dr. Rianne Lous
Contributor, Otermans Institute
Postdoctoral Researcher in experimental physics, The Netherlands
Feedback is an important part of life, both in your personal and in your professional life. Feedback can be described as information about either reactions to a product or a person’s performance of a task or service, which is used as the basis for improvement. We at Otermans Institute believe that that final word, improvement, is key here. The purpose of feedback is to improve the situation or the person’s performance. You will not accomplish that by being very critical, harsh, mean or offensive. You will be more successful when you approach feedback in a positive and focused manner. This lesson will address some key areas to take into account when giving constructive feedback.
When giving feedback, ask yourself: Am I doing this because I have a genuine interest in helping out the other person? Giving feedback is not about telling what you do not like about a person, instead, it is about accepting who the person is and showing them what they can do to perform a task better. So if you want to complain, you are not giving feedback. On the contrary, you are looking for an outlet of your own feelings, which will only negatively influence your relationship with the other person. The point of feedback is to build-up or strengthen the other person’s skills. In order for that to take place, the other person needs to be open for it. If you believe you have tips that can improve another person’s performance, job tasks or skills, go ahead; you have a mutual benefit in mind.
Don’t attack the person: Feedback is not about changing a person’s character, it is about something they did which you think they can do better. Avoid using the words: "You did …. wrong”. Everything in between these words has a tendency to not be heard. If you give your feedback in this way, it is very negative and that defeats the purpose. Focus on the task and how it (not the person) can be improved. Here, your own experience is your best guidance (see the “think back” exercise below). Remember the time someone gave you feedback and it made you so very angry. Most likely it was because they forgot to value you as a person and you felt personally insulted.
Far too often we generalise things. Yet the best feedback is specific to improving a particular task, skill or situation. Compare, for instance, “ You need to improve how to speak in public” versus “During this speech I felt not connected to you as a speaker, yet for me a connection is important to convey the message of a speaker. An improvement can be to look more into the audience”. The first type of feedback leaves the person with a vague idea of what he/she can do, while the latter gives her/him an active handle to work on. Thus, feedback should be useful, preferably it should be translatable into a simple task one can do better next time. It should be easily transformed into an action point. Think from the perspective of the other person, what does he/she need to improve? In addition, can you give them some ways of how they can improve? It is one thing to know you can improve in a certain area, it is an entirely other world to actually know of why and how to do it. When one gets specific feedback, it becomes much easier to implement it.
There is a general rule that you should say twice as many nice things about a person than you give improvement or feedback tips. This is because people usually tend to select out the “bad” from the “good”. In fact research has shown that people tend to even memorise or remember negative experiences more than positive experiences.
This is what is called a feedback sandwich. You provide a positive aspect, then move to the actual feedback, and you end with another positive aspect. Personally, I get annoyed when people try to embed feedback like that, as it looks like they just came up with positive feedback points so they can tell you the constructive one. When you give compliments and highlight things that went well (positive things), make sure it is genuine and specific to the overall feedback. When you are specific, it is easy for the other person to remember to keep doing that thing he/she was doing great. Compare “you wrote a nice essay” versus “I really like how you in 3 steps clearly explained the core message, it made it easier to remember”. The first one leaves the person feeling good, the second one is positive feedback which tells them they are doing something good and should keep doing it. It is much more powerful.
The purpose of positive feedback is to point out that the basis is there and all you suggest is improving on that, as it will make their performance even better. Showing that there is already a basis makes it easier to start building up and also to feel good about the original effort. This, almost always, encourages further action.
Most of the time, try to avoid giving a lot of feedback. However, especially when working on presentations or written assignments, one can be in a situation where a lot of (detailed) feedback needs to be given. Here, strictly applying the sandwich rule can become problematic. Thus, I prefer to ask a person whether they want feedback. Typically it is a yes, otherwise they would not have asked me to come to their presentation or read over the article. Yet it is always good to remind them they want this.
So, once I know they are open to it, I tell them that this task requires a lot of feedback to prepare them. I will then tell them how I would like to deliver the feedback and whether that format is okay. My most commonly used formats typically translates into telling them that I will first mention my general impression which should include my positive feedback; then give a lot of detailed constructive feedback which can be slide by slide or paragraph by paragraph and end with summarizing the key takeaways in 1-3 main points. At Otermans Institute, we believe this would be the best way to improve their work. Always remember when providing the final main points to refer back to the positive feedback to show that the foundation in their work is already there.
When giving feedback try to follow these 6 points:
5. Action point
Ask: Ask whether someone wants feedback and whether they are willing to listen to it. If they say “no", walk away from the situation. Don’t give unwanted feedback, it will never be received well and thus not have any positive effect. However if they say “yes”, the person is open for suggestions and improvements, so all the more likely to pick up on your advice.
Describe: Give an objective description of the task. This shows that you know what you are talking about and are actually there to support the other person to improve. “You gave a speech where I saw you most of the time staring at the ground.”
Perceive: Tell them how you perceived it or what your impression was of the task, activity or performance of the other person. This is from your perspective, so avoid generalising it to the entire audience. This is important as without telling them it is hard for the other person to know how the task was perceived by you, and thus what led you to give feedback. “I had the impression that I found it hard to connect to you on the stage.”
Reason: Say what you believe led to your impression of the task. Here is where you highlight what went well and what areas they could improve on. “I believe this was because I could not make eye contact with you.”
Action point: Give a concrete action point of improvement. This is about what we mentioned before, be specific so you leave the other person with some direct action that they can take with them. “I would suggest looking more into the audience and making eye contact.”
Tell the outcome: Paint a picture of what it would be like if the feedback was implemented. Showing a person the benefit of implementing your feedback is one step closer to them actually doing it. This coincides with the starting point: If people know that you care about making them better at a task, then they are more likely to accept and implement your feedback. “This will make it easier for people to make eye contact with you and could lead to a better reception of your speech.”
If they improve, give them credit and compliments. Don’t give them additional feedback, leave that for a next round. If they don’t improve, remember feedback is about giving. The person might reject it or not improve, that’s up to them. One thing you can do is ask them whether they found any help in the feedback or if there is something they haven’t understood that prevents them from taking action. Tell them to reflect yourself upon the feedback, are you happy about it, did you follow the steps?
1) Think Back:
a) Remember the times when you learned something that helped you improve, what was it in the feedback you got that actually made you implement it? How was the feedback given, what was your reaction to it? What did you do with the feedback given?
b) Remember the times when you received negative feedback, what did that feel like? How did you respond? How would you have liked to have gotten the feedback? This is a good way to learn how you want to give feedback to others.
2) Practice on dry ground:
Next time you read something or listen to something and it makes you feel a particular way, try to formulate a feedback. Give a description to it, ask yourself why it gives this impression, what you would have liked to see differently and how that can be achieved.
Creating this mindset without directly giving feedback or involving another person, is a great way to prepare yourself. It can both be applied to constructive feedback as well as to how to give compliments. By training in these (make-belief) situations where you are not personally involved, it will be easier to apply the same strategy when you do feel like you should give feedback to someone. Also, it is a fun way to pass the time when you somehow can’t seem to pay attention to a lecture you are attending. What is it that made you drift away and how would you give feedback?
Finally do check our lesson on ‘fundamentals of team work’ for more tips that you can use alongside this lesson.
Family: Discuss how you would like feedback to work, what is it you find good about getting feedback and what is it you don’t like. Practice giving each other feedback on one small thing that you think they can improve on but ensure to ask that member if they want your feedback on that specific thing. Take turns, so each person has had a chance to give feedback and receive feedback. Then, give time for feedback to be implemented before reflecting together on whether it worked or not.
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