How to Give Feedback, Part I

So far I have been blogging about asking for and receiving feedback. Now we will examine how to give useful feedback.

One way to give useful feedback is through the following model. Because feedback is just information, this model is appropriately called INFO:

Inquire: The first step always is to find out if your feedback is wanted.

Neutral: Next, ask yourself why you are offering feedback and make sure your motivation is to convey useful information, and not to be vindictive or judgmental. (See prior blog [link] for useful and non-useful reasons for giving feedback.)

Factual: While opinion feedback can be useful in some situations, to have it be effective and neutral, be sure your feedback is factual.

Observable: Finally, feedback should be about something that you have observed and not something that you have heard about or imagine may have happened.

Let’s start with the first element, “inquire.”question mark

1. Inquire – First always ask, “Do you want feedback from me?” Because feedback is often scary for people and can feel like failure, do not ever give feedback unless it has been requested or specifically agreed to.

“Inquire” will be different in different environments. If you have established a culture of feedback (how to do this is the topic of a future blog) then you will have ground rules and an understanding of how to best deliver feedback. This culture can be established in organizations, in families and in two-person relationships.

If you are not in an environment where feedback is valued, sought after and given freely, you will need to be careful in the “inquire” step. First, ask yourself “what is the outcome I am looking for from offering this feedback?” That will guide your conversation.

Obviously, if you have never had a feedback conversation with the person you are approaching, asking “do you want feedback from me?” might not be a question they know how to answer. The word “feedback,” like “accountability” has acquired a definition that makes some people nervous. When people hear your feedback, a few things my happen.

1. Most people, when told “I have feedback for you” believe they are about to get in trouble. Not all; but most. So it is good to know this is where you are starting.

2. Most people will at the very least characterize in their minds, as you deliver the feedback, whether it is “good” or “bad.”

As such, you might start with a softer approach. You might say, “I have noticed a few things that I think might be of interest to you. Would you like to hear them?” The person may want more info. I’ve had people ask me, “what is this about?” before statin whether they do or do not want feedback from me. In which case, you might say, “I noticed some things in your interaction with that client and I don’t know if you are aware of it.” This might help them decide whether they want to hear it or not. That is what you want to determine in the “inquire” stage. The objective in this step is to find out whether they want your feedback so that when you deliver it, they can really hear it and take it in. Giving feedback that is unwanted will likely be met with resistance and probably not be taken in as useful information.

It is also possible that they won’t want to hear your feedback now, but at a later time. I once managed an employee who struggled with customer relations. I would watch or listen to her interact with customers and would often have feedback for her. We had a prior agreement and she had asked that I offer her feedback as much as possible in order for her to improve. What I saw was, though, if she was feeling particularly bad about an interaction and I asked her right after the interaction, she would say, “No; I don’t want your feedback right now.” She needed to feel more neutral about it before I offered her the information. At other times, she would feel good about the interaction with the customer or be unsure how she did and in those instances, she would come to me and ask, “what did you notice?” right after the interaction was over – because she was ready.

The word I use often with feedback is “notice.” Here is what I “noticed”. This term honors, again, that feedback is information. For example, “I noticed that you went up to the customer right when she walked in the door. That seemed effective. I noticed she holding up the mirrorsmiled when you made that joke. I noticed that her body language seemed to close down when you raised your voice. I noticed that she stayed a long time to talk to you. I noticed that she did not buy from you.” Feedback is a mirror. It is offered because we cannot see ourselves. And so, again, offer it as a gift.

In the end, if you are going to offer people the option of when to hear your feedback and whether to hear your feedback, it is best not to be attached to their decision. If on the other hand, you are a manager or a boss and you are required to give feedback, the inquiry stage could be satisfied by inquiring when would be the best time. Adjust the inquiry stage so it works for you.