How To Successfully Navigate Giving and Receiving Feedback

Chances are good that you’re part of a team or group larger than yourself and that work is being created in a collaborative nature. As work gets done, it’s often wise to ask for feedback to gauge the quality of your work and find others who can spot areas for improvement. However, if you’re anything like me, the typical response is a blanket statement that sounds positive. Something like “it was great!” or “that was the best!” when discussing a project or presentation.

Unfortunately, this feedback is nearly useless and is often used as a polite way to dismiss the request for feedback. For most, the idea of offering improvement too closely overlaps with being negative or criticizing, and thus you never really get any good ideas on how to continue advancing towards a better version of yourself.

Admittedly, I once considered a continuous diet of positive responses to mean that everything was going great. This way of thinking was slowly challenged as I started changing the way I phrased requests for feedback, and also impacted how I approach providing feedback to others. In this post, I’ll offer some perspective on both sides of the feedback equation.

Prefix: The Safety Bubble

Before I hop up on my soap box, let me first state a somewhat obvious but worthwhile fact: not everyone takes feedback the same way. We’re all at different points of our journey. It’s important to be honest and fair in what is communicated. However, some folks asking for feedback don’t actually want it – they just want the verbal hugs. :)

Asking for Feedback

Let’s put aside anonymous and form-based feedback and instead focus on situations in which you want to get feedback from someone whom you know. Start with a bit of navel gazing:

  1. What is it you’re hoping to learn from the feedback?
    • Examples: Technical accuracy, story flow, visual aids, “Explain Like I’m 5” (ELI5)
  2. Does the person you’re asking have the time, skills, and resources available to offer actionable feedback?
    • Examples: Are they traveling or going on PTO? Will they have enough time to hit my deadlines?
  3. Does the person you’re asking know you well enough to be honest and direct?
    • Examples: Is there a fear of retaliation? Have we worked on projects in the past? Do they typically offer direct feedback to others?

I find that answering these first three questions helps clarify my thoughts and determines if I should proceed further, although question 2 may require taking your best guess.

Once I’m ready to proceed further, I try to take all of the burden off the reviewer’s shoulders. Provide all of the necessary context – what you created, what you’re hoping to learn, why you’re asking them, links / attachments to the content, and any known deadlines – to make their life easy. Be clear that you respect their time, want direct and actionable feedback, and consider this a teaching tool to help you.

If you need a rough framework to get started, try framing your request for feedback into three main categories:

  1. What am I doing that I need to stop?
  2. What am I not doing that I should start?
  3. What am I doing now that I should invest into more?

Receiving Feedback

In most cases, the section above creates a Safety Bubble for the reviewer to share their honest opinions and suggestions. Once you receive the feedback, try to find all of the great ideas being given to you and make them your own.

Not all feedback will be something you agree with, but there should be some interesting ideas planted among the review. If you do decide to act on the feedback, it’s often a good idea to share the results with the reviewer so that they can see their investment yield a return.

Being Asked for Feedback

Does hearing the phrase “can you give me feedback on my work?” give you chills down your spine? You’re not alone. Most of us avoid conflict and stress when possible because it’s not fun and, scientifically, triggers the release of cortisol. This is why you feel your heart pounding in a “fight or flight” type of response. It can feel like you’re under attack.

However, providing feedback can also be a rush of creativity and fun (triggering a release of dopamine) once you start to get the hang of it.

If this is your first time giving feedback to an individual, it’s often good to ask for clarification:

  1. What type of feedback are you looking for?
  2. When do you need the feedback?

This shows that you’re taking the request seriously and trying to frame the request in your mind. It’s also good to set expectations on how you prefer to give feedback.

Example: Your success is important to me. Thus, I am very direct and honest in my feedback. I’ll do my best to provide a specific and actionable review.

Sending Feedback

At this point, you know what the person is looking for and when they need it. It’s a good idea to set aside a specific time to perform a review and build feedback. I suggest putting an event on your calendar or loading the action item into your task tracking application.

Time permitting, perform two passes on the content:

  1. Be a passive participant:
    • Consume the work (watch, read, listen) without worrying about the details.
    • Try to follow the requester’s work to see where it all leads.
    • Upon reaching the end, record your impressions and overall thoughts.
  2. Be an active participant:
    • Consume the work a second time.
    • Take detailed notes on areas that pleasantly surprised you (I hadn’t thought of that!) or disappointed you (This doesn’t make sense).
    • If possible, build some proactive ideas on how to improve the areas that disappointed you.
      • Example: “I noticed that you’re consistently using on-premises incorrectly and saying on-premise. We’re all wired differently. Maybe try just switching to on-site or local instead?”
    • Avoid being negative.

At this point you can send over the feedback (both the good and the bad) for them to review. Accept that some ideas will be used and others will not. Hopefully, the work you’re reviewing will become just a little bit better because of your feedback, and the person you helped with appreciate your focus on their success.

After all, feedback is a gift.