Prepare, share, care: Three steps to shaping constructive feedback

What’s the most painful piece of feedback you’ve ever received?


My top three are:

  1. A friend in high school pointing out that I wasn’t being a very good friend to her because of the way I was acting.

  2. A partner giving examples of me not being assertive enough when asking for what I wanted at work.

  3. A manager saying she didn’t think I really wanted the promotion I believed I did and listing observations that supported her opinion.

Coincidentally, this is also my top three list for pieces of insightful feedback that changed the course of my life for the better. So, why is the most painful feedback often the most insightful? And why does it usually come from someone we’re close to?

In this post, I’ll unpack the nature of constructive feedback, why it’s important, and three steps to shaping your feedback discussion with employees or peers.

Why is giving feedback so uncomfortable?

Constructive criticism – whether giving or receiving – is a difficult experience for most. Even though feedback is a key part of continuous learning and growth, few of us naturally know the best way to work with it. Understanding why it’s uncomfortable is a great place to start. From there, we can build up a constructive approach to shaping feedback.

Imagine if you were trying to get directions to somewhere important and, rather than telling you to turn left, your phone told directed you to “Go a bit more to the left… if you want.” Alternatively, what if you missed the turn completely and your phone didn’t flag it? Either way, you’d never get to your destination!

When giving feedback to someone, we’re often concerned about making things worse or hurting the person we’re meaning to help. This causes us to sugarcoat our words or speak in vague terms to ‘protect’ that person. Unfortunately, this can have the opposite effect, leaving the recipient more confused and hurt than if the criticism had been clearly and constructively delivered.

LEARN MORE: Reduce the stress of giving and receiving feedback through a continuous feedback model.

How can we shape feedback to be constructive?

I can only imagine how conflicted the people delivering that painful feedback would have been. The reality is that they did it because they wanted to see me succeed. Feedback is all about empowering someone with information and data to make changes and improvements to the way they work. Feedback informs goal setting, builds culture, and helps you understand how a person’s feeling over time to predict and prevent attrition. In most cases, it all comes down to what they said, how they delivered the information, and why they were doing it.

With that in mind, here are three steps to shaping your feedback so you get the point across in a kind and constructive way:

1. Consider what you say

  • Focus on behaviors: These are observable actions that you can objectively describe to open the dialogue. Start by saying something like: “Here’s what I’ve observed…” or “I heard you say….”

  • Be specific: Having an example or two makes it easier to avoid generalizations such as “You always…” and “You never…” which any relationship counselor will flag as an argument starter.

  • Talk about the impact of their actions: What effect did the behavior have on others? How might a third party experience the event?

2. Take care with how you say it

  • Context is key: Is the person ready to hear this feedback? Are you in the right frame of mind to give it? Like any important conversation, planning ahead helps to ensure everyone has enough time and mental space to commit to the topic at hand.

  • Timeliness matters: This is especially true for giving positive feedback. We like to think we’re far beyond the trained pigeons and dogs in classic behavioral experiments, however, the simple fact is that praise received soon after a desirable behavior takes place is more likely to result in that action being repeated. So, when someone does something good, tell them about it, right away!

  • Be mindful of nonverbal cues: Giving praise is great unless your tone is reluctant and you avoid eye contact. If you have to give criticism, a calm voice and non-threatening posture will help. Think about your position in relation to the other person; for example, if you’re standing while they sit, what might this imply about the power dynamic of the conversation?

3. Remember why you’re saying it

If all of the above is too much to process, just remember this: You’re giving the person this feedback because you want to help them improve. You’re making the choice to share this with them because their success matters more than a small amount of immediate discomfort. Let that purpose guide you and you’ll set yourself up for a successful conversation.

RELATED: Learn how to build a culture of feedback in your organization.

How can we be better at receiving feedback?

We actually all need feedback (particularly at work) to keep us engaged and help us improve our performance. As you might have expected, those top three pieces of feedback weren’t easy to receive. I’d like to say I took them well at the time but acknowledging my shortcomings, I can admit receiving feedback well is still a work in progress for me.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you’re on the receiving end of a feedback discussion:

  • When hearing information about something we could have done or be doing better, it’s easy to be defensive or dismissive to protect our view of ourselves as competent humans doing the best we can. Coming back to the map analogy, we need to be able to take directions to get to where we want to go (even if this means acknowledging shortcomings and digging deeper into the feedback until we understand it completely).

  • It’s hard to separate the two, but try to listen first to comprehend the information, and save judgment around the accuracy of the feedback for later. This isn’t to say you’ve got to take everything that’s said as the absolute truth (even our GPS is wrong, sometimes) but starting from a place of receptiveness will help you get the most out of the feedback.

  • Ask questions! Not to defend but to clarify. If the feedback giver has taken the plunge to say something to you, grab that gift with both hands and ask for more. If their praise is unclear, ask exactly which part of your actions was praise-worthy. If they’re being vague with criticism, let them know that you understand it’s not personal and that you’d like them to be specific with what they saw or heard, and how they think you might improve.

RELATED: Improve employee feedback conversations with the Pendleton Feedback Model.

It’s okay to have your own ideas for improvement, too. If something occurs to you in the moment, it’s a great opportunity to run those thoughts past the person giving feedback, and see what they think.

Although this may feel like a laundry list of things to remember, and these tips might not all occur to you during a discussion, we hope you’ve at least found a great place to start for giving effective feedback and receiving it in a constructive way.