How to give better feedback
I have noticed that a lot of people struggle with giving feedback, or at least giving it in an effective and empathetic manner. The "feedback culture", where everything is open for criticism and can forever be improved, is great in some aspects, as it harbors collaboration and it helps to improve the content or products we create, but it also has major drawbacks like:
- it gives a green light for some people to take it as an opportunity to flat out be mean, show off, or belittle others, thus harboring a sense of competition instead of collaboration
- it puts the burden on the receiving end of the feedback to be gracious about it, since reacting negatively to feedback is viewed as the person not being open to growing and improving, while simultaneously placing no requirement on the giving part to put any effort into their feedback, aside from listing their complaints
However, when people give feedback, in many cases they are genuinely trying to be helpful, but the form in which they package their suggestions isn't optimal. In a lot of cases, the person giving feedback focuses too much on the negatives, and displays little empathy towards the person receiving feedback.
So I decided to put together a method consisting of six steps to go through before giving feedback to someone.
Step 1: Ask yourself if your feedback is required
- Did this person ask for my feedback (or for feedback in general in a group of people I'm a member of)? If the person is asking for feedback, all the principles in the next steps still apply, but you might want to tread more carefully if the person didn't ask feedback from you, because unsolicited opinions aren't always welcome, regardless of how strongly you feel about them.
- Do I want to give feedback on something that looks like an accidental oversight (like a broken link, or a typo that affects how the text will be understood)? If so, go ahead! This is the kind of useful feedback that is always welcome and appreciated.
Step 2: Make a list
Make a bullet list of all the feedback you want to give and count the negative points. If they are many more than 2-3 negative things, reconsider if those are really critical, like this:
- Is this likely to bother me alone or everyone else too? Do you have evidence of it bothering other people as well? Have you discussed this with others? Is this a unanimous thing?
- Is this a personal opinion that nobody asked for or is it a comment that will help this work fulfill its goals? For example, if my friend asks "please go to my website and tell me if you like it", that's one thing. But if they say "please go to my website and tell me if all my information is correct", that's different. They are asking whether the work meets a certain criteria, not if it suits my personal taste.
- Is this really critical? Does it impede a person's ability to gain something from the work that I'm giving feedback on?
- What would happen if this person doesn't change this? Are the consequences of this not being the way I think it should be really that terrible?
- Is this thing I'm giving feedback on valuable as it is, as opposed to it not existing, or would it be better if it didn't exist (in other words, it does more harm than good)?
If you still think these are all highly important, pick your top 3.
Step 3: Give as much positive feedback as negative
And your positive points must be genuine. It's no good to review your friend's website and go "nice colors, but here are 43 things that I hate about your website". On the one hand, it's nice that you comment that you like the colors, but in the context of 43 complaints it might come across as condescending (more on how to formulate your feedback in Step 6).
Looking for things to give genuine praise about will force you to look at it again with a different mindset. Sometimes we look at someone else's work (and probably our own) with a critical eye, looking for flaws. This is great sometimes, but in doing so we might miss the opportunity to give praise, which is just as important as trying to fix things.
If we consider the work being done valuable, we want to encourage the author to keep doing it. Consider how you'd feel if your work was being negatively evaluated when you put a lot of effort into it. You might feel like next time you might not share your work due to fear of being excessively criticized.
You might say: if I was in the receiving end of the feedback, I wouldn't mind receiving negative feedback. First, it might be the case that you have never received harsh criticism delivered in an unempathetic way because of efforts made by others giving you feedback, so you might not have experienced how it feels. And second, while we are all different and maybe it is true you wouldn't mind, that doesn't mean everyone will react in the way you do, so it's best to err on the side of caution and try to be tactful.
Also keep in mind that for most people, their work is something they personally identify with, so putting it out there for people to criticize is an act of vulnerability. It might feel to them as you're criticizing them personally, and it takes a lot of effort not to take the criticism personally. Honor that effort by making it easier not to take it personally.
Remember that it takes courage to put your work out there for the world to see and criticize. There is a real and vulnerable human being behind the work you're picking apart. Take this as an opportunity to exercise your empathy muscles.
Step 4: Apply the Socratic filter for each of the items on your list
You might be familiar with the Triple Filter, a way of testing things before saying them based on their trueness, goodness, and usefulness, which is usually attributed to Socrates. Although it probably wasn't Socrates at all who came up with it, I still think it's good advice, and it applies to giving feedback.
- Is it true? “Am I sure that what I am going to say is true?”
Have you made absolutely sure that what you're going to say is true? Did you check different sources? Can you back your claim with evidence?
- Is it good? “Is what I’m going to say a good thing?”
Is this a negative thing or a positive thing? This is especially important if you're also not certain that what you're going to say is true or useful (see next point), in which case this is a good indication that you should maybe not say it.
- Is it useful? “Do I really need to say it and is it useful?”
Is what you're going to say helpful to the person? Can they do something with the information you're providing, or are you saying it just to get it off your chest?
Step 5 - Formulate your criticism properly (be kind)
The words you choose and the way you choose to present them make a world of difference. Consider the following statement:
"Paragraph two is completely wrong - break it in the middle and delete those awful exclamation marks. Ugh, again you forgot the comma here, it is so annoying to read this without the proper punctuation."
It might seem exaggerated but I have come across feedback like this. Consider the following way to say the exact same thing:
"I like the ideas expressed in paragraph two! What do you think of breaking it in the middle, so it's not as long and we can give each idea its own separate paragraph? Also, I think you might have forgotten a comma here."
Aside from making the person receiving the feedback feel entirely differently about their work and the way it's being perceived, it increases the likelihood of your feedback being taken into account. Which one of those two statements are you most likely to be angry or sad about, and therefore maybe dismiss, and which one are you most likely to take into consideration?
Step 6 - Be prepared for your feedback not to be acted upon
Remember that the person receiving the feedback is under no obligation to take your feedback into consideration and modify their work, as this is their work and not yours and certain decisions are ultimately theirs to make. It is your turn to be gracious about it and let it go.
To sum up, taking time to process your thoughts before sharing them is a beneficial thing in general. Putting them through different filters which might challenge your own perspective can make your feedback much more insightful and valuable, aside from making the person on the receiving end feel less inadequate and more open to taking your advice into consideration.
Remember that work is done by humans, and therefore it is not a neutral thing that just spontaneously came upon being, it is the product of hard work, and it's tied to a human being with emotions. Be respectful of their effort and above all, be kind. It costs nothing and it can make all the difference.