Your web designer has just updated your site, but it’s not what you wanted. You’ve discovered that your warehouse has mislabeled some important parcels. And a client is complaining that she was sent wrong information again by your VA.
You know you ought to have conversations with them all, but you’re already feeling anxious with the thought of it. You’re wondering whether you should just update your site yourself, send a furious email to the warehouse, and look for a new assistant.
Most people hate giving negative feedback – so much so, that we’re prepared to do work we hate ourselves, change all our arrangements and even find different people to work with, in order to avoid it.
But what if you could give feedback in a way that meant you both came out with a new motivation to get the job done as well as possible, a greater understanding of your shared goals and an increased commitment to working together?
If you get it right, that’s exactly what giving feedback can do for you.
What’s the point of giving feedback?
Giving someone feedback is about empowering them to achieve what they need to. Most people want to get things right, and want to know that their energy has gone into something that matters. So your role in giving feedback is very simple. It’s helping someone else with the information or support they need so they can achieve the result you both want.
The same principles apply whether you’re talking to a member of your team, a freelancer, or an expert you’ve hired, such as a lawyer or marketing consultant. If you find yourself anxious at the thought of a stressful conversation, here are 11 tips to keep your feedback productive, focused, and comfortable.
1. Have confidence in the person you’re giving feedback to
Start off by assuming that the other person wants to do a good job, and wants to take responsibility for their own work. This should help you to have the right mindset for a constructive conversation. In most cases, you’ll find you’re right.
2. Plan a time, and cut out distractions
Agree a time to have a conversation with the other person, even if it’s short. That way you can both be prepared for it, and focus properly. Ensure you won’t be disturbed or distracted.
3. Always talk in person
Face-to-face is the best way of giving feedback, but if you use phone or Skype regularly in your relationship, that’s fine. Avoid email for anything that involves emotion, unless it’s completely positive. Purely technical feedback might be appropriate (‘please change the logo to blue’), but if there is any risk of communicating displeasure, disapproval or criticism, email can quickly escalate the negative feelings and waste hours, if not days, of mounting frustration.
4. Keep your conversation focused on the job
All you’re interested in is getting the right outcome. Stay away from personal issues unless they’re directly relevant, and even then, keep focused on how they relate to what you’re talking about. For example, if someone’s attention to detail has suffered because they’re having sleepless nights with a toddler, see if they can suggest a solution that might help them to do the job better while they’re in this situation.
5. Agree on your shared goals
Start out by addressing what the goal of the piece of work is. Ideally the other person should be very familiar with it – and if they’re not, that suggests that your communication may have gone wrong somewhere. So you might say, ‘Bob, I know you’re working hard to ensure that all our packages are labeled correctly so we can avoid late deliveries. How could you ensure that all our clients get deliveries on time in the future?’
6. Trust their experience and willingness by asking for their solutions
Explore with the other person how things could be improved, and ask them for their input. Asking open questions to engage them is a powerful technique. So you might say, ‘We’ve agreed that we need to hit our sales target this month. Which areas do you think you need to focus on to reach it?’
7. Keep the past in the past
Try to avoid getting sidetracked by complex explanations of problems or reasons things went wrong. Problems can be worth identifying so they can be solved, but only if they make a difference. Discovering that someone hasn’t been trained in running out the correct labels means you can take action, but if the conversation is moving into general complaints about how people don’t have enough time, or how someone else messed up, try to bring it back to focusing on specific ways forwards.
8. Ask how you can help
Ask the other person how you can help them. Do they need more information from you? Do they want to understand your own goals better? Do they feel isolated, and in need of more communication? Would a more detailed brief help? Try to encourage them to make their own suggestions, to avoid them agreeing with you out of politeness. Asking open questions such as ‘How can I best support you?’ or ‘Would it help for me to be a sounding board for your ideas?’ can help them explore how you can help. Listen carefully, and then consider how you can change your own working habits to help them.
9. Stay calm
If someone gets defensive or even angry, it’s important to remain in charge of your own emotions. Try to keep focused on the outcome you want, and how you can achieve it together. Someone who feels confident in themselves and in you is less likely to respond negatively. If you feel that emotion is taking over, suggest that you take a short break for you both to regain self-control.
10. Remember the power of positive feedback
Positive feedback is immensely powerful, and not just as a way of softening bad news. It tells someone what they’ve done well has been valued, and it reinforces their desire to keep doing it. It also means they learn the things that you particularly like in their work. Ending a difficult conversation with positive feedback can help restore goodwill: ‘Thank you for the conversation, Helen. I really appreciate your input and openness.’
11. Address the small things, and the big ones will take care of themselves
If you’re giving people regular, thorough and considered feedback on their work, and listening to what they tell you in return, it’s much less likely that big problems will develop.
However, there are occasionally times when you have to take a very firm stance. Remember that your overall goal has to be the health of your business and everyone else you work with. If you need to end a relationship, do it firmly, professionally, and remain as friendly as you can.
Have you had experiences of giving feedback that were particularly challenging, or which went much better than you’d expected? I’d love to know what you find most difficult, and what works for you.