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Wednesday, 22 June 2011

How do you give feedback without causing offence?

When you think about it, "feedback" is a strange term isn't it? However, as a trainer and a coach I prefer to put all thoughts of reciprocal feeding aside and to focus on the extremely valuable tool that it can be...

The trouble with feedback is that unless it is used responsibly, sensitively and ethically, it can also be quite destructive - to the person on the receiving end and also to the on-going relationship. That's probably why so many people decide to opt out of giving feedback unless they're absolutely cornered to do so... and even then, they'll try to think up something bland and non-committal to say for fear of offending. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those people who just can't help themselves... putting others down, sharing their pearls of wisdom with: "Oh, you don't want to do it like that", or "If I were you...". Well you'll never be me, so what's your point actually?

All that aside, feedback that is well thought through and timely can be extremely valuable as a proactive method of sharing your experience, views, needs and preferences. Managers and Team Leaders who learn how to give feedback to their reports in a supportive and constructive manner are able to motivate and inspire performance improvement and achievement of challenging objectives. Failure to give feedback on performance issues not only does not tackle those things that can be the difference between success and failure of a task, but it can also lead to the continuing deterioration of performance. There's nothing quite so insulting to an employee to criticise or chastise them after months or years have gone by when you've never told them clearly what they were doing wrong. "But why didn't you tell me?" is a common cry of despair...

And feedback isn't only a management tool. It's a skill that everyone can benefit from improving and regularly using. Think of it as the ability to share your experience with people with whom you work. Is there a colleague who regularly inconveniences you? Is there someone whose support you appreciate, but you wish it were given in a slightly different way? Maybe there's one person who you really rely on and don't want them to stop what they're doing... Feedback enables you to communicate with them - to translate your thoughts into words and to positively influence how the people around you think and behave.

Then there's the person on the receiving end of the feedback. Let's spare a thought for them as after all, feedback is actually a two-way process - not just a broadcasting tool for manipulating others. (Well it shouldn't be!) Anyone who is conscientious about their job role, who strives towards excellence and who seeks continuous improvements will be delighted to receive feedback - indeed, they will make it their business to seek it out! The only proviso is that the feedback they are looking for must be honest, transparent and constructive. They're not looking to be manipulated with fake praise, or damned with feint praise. They would simply like to know a bit more about the impact of their actions and their approach - so they can make adjustments where necessary.

It's clear that although feedback can be extremely valuable, there's a variety of reasons that people often find it difficult to give. Here are a few guidelines that may help you to ensure that the feedback you give is constructive and supportive:

• Always ensure that the purpose of your feedback is to be genuinely helpful to the other person, as well as to yourself. It should never be used as a punishment.

• Before launching in with your observations, it is respectful to ask them if they have any areas of particular concern that they'd like your feedback on.

• Don’t say the first thing that comes into your head. Take some time to think about your comments to ensure that they're fair and balanced.

• Most people feel very vulnerable while receiving feedback and so will be very sensitive to your comments. Be aware of this when deciding what to say. It’s a good idea to think about how you would feel if the same comments were made about you.

• Speak directly to the person. If you're in a meeting, or with others, don’t talk about them to the group.

• Remember that your feedback is your view, so say ‘I...’ rather than ‘We...’ or ‘The team...’.

• Think about your non-verbal communication. Make eye contact and ensure that both your posture and your expression are non-threatening, relaxed and informal.

• Be honest but non-judgmental. For example, ‘I noticed that you interrupted the other person five times,’ rather than, ‘You were so full of your own opinions that you wouldn’t let the other person get a word in edgeways’.

• Talk about the specific behaviour rather than your personal opinion of them. For example: ‘No dates were set for the next meeting,’ rather than ‘You’re not very organised are you?’.

• Make sure that you comment on the good points as well as the development areas. It’s important that people are made aware of their strengths too.

• Avoid using a formulaic approach (such as the unfortunately named "s**t sandwich") It will only look false and manipulative.

• Don’t overload the person with a list of issues. Being given two or three areas to consider may be valuable; 15 is demoralizing and pointless.

• Don't avoid giving 'negative' feedback. It’s unfair to refuse help because you feel awkward about it.

• Remember that only poorly given feedback is negative.

• Make your remarks specific. For example, ‘You had a friendly approach’ is of little value. A better example would be, ‘You made good eye contact, had a friendly smile, and your posture was open and relaxed. All these things made me feel that you were looking forward to the interview’.

• Remember that feedback is something the other person has the right to consider. They should be free to consider it in context with other feedback they’ve received as well as with their own observations and views. They may or may not accept any or all of what you say.

• If you're in a position of authority, make sure you distinguish between your 'feedback' and your managerial 'instructions'. This way, the other person will be clear about what they need to act on, and what they are free to consider.

If you have any further ideas, thoughts or experiences about feedback-giving, do let me know!

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