How to give and receive feedback


In my last post, I talked about why, as a community of women, we need to have tough conversations — conversations about race and privilege and gender and intersectionality. But, If these conversations are to be meaningful, we need to be able to:

  1. embrace and value conflict, and
  2. effectively give and receive feedback.

From my observations, most of us are not very skilled at at either of these, regardless of the topic or the setting. Just reflect on this for a minute…when there is some kind of conflict at work, how do people handle it? Do they avoid confrontation at all costs, pretending it isn’t happening? Do they accommodate and find ways around the problem as a means of postponing actually dealing with it? Do they engage aggressively to win the battle? Do they seek to compromise, or even better, collaborate in problem solving?

To create a space that fosters creativity and innovation, you have to have some conflict and disagreement. If there is too little conflict, people check out. They devote little energy to the work. If there is too much conflict, people get stuck in anger and can’t get anything done.

So, what does it take to maintain a productive level of “conflict” that actually leads to high quality ideas and solutions, as well as personal and professional fulfillment?

It is the ability to give and receive feedback. You can’t engage conflict productively unless you can give and receive feedback. You must be able to navigate and course correct, without things getting personal.

We need to embrace this mantra: Feedback is a gift.

We all need it in order to grow. And, I think, most of us really want it.

Feedback is a gift. Even if it hurts sometimes. Just to be clear, some people abuse the opportunity to give feedback and engage in harassment, bullying, or other wrong behavior under the guise of being “helpful” or doing it “for your own good.” That’s not what I’m talking about.

I am talking about a genuine effort to engage so both parties grow together.

For feedback to be effective, we want to strive toward meeting three key elements:

  • Clear: The person receiving feedback is be able to understand what you mean
  • Accepted: The person receiving your feedback is willing and able to accept it
  • Actionable: You and the person are able to take action in response

Sometimes we get time to prepare in advance for feedback. We get to reflect, prioritize and really choose how we want to share something. Other times, it happens in real time. It is perfectly acceptable to ask for a short pause, or time-out, to take a deep breath and gather thoughts.

I sometimes suggest people identify “code words” that they can use to indicate that behaviors that could create conflict are happening and that a pause is needed. The code words are identified together and agreed to in advance. When the code word is deployed, it defuses any defensiveness because it has already been discussed. When the code word is used, all parties know it was with good intention.

Whether we are preparing in advance, or giving feedback real-time, there are some basic guidelines that help the process.

Tips for Giving Feedback:

  • Focus on Behaviors: Do not judge or evaluate the individual as a person — focus on their specific behavior. This is about what people DO; it is not about WHO they are. Do not call names. Explain the behavior and the outcome it causes. For example:
  • Be specific: General statements about behavior are less effective. You’ll want to provide specific examples of what you are talking about in your feedback. The more recent the examples are the more effective they are likely to be.
  • Be tentative: Remember, these are your perceptions of a situation. You are not all-knowing. You may have a distorted view of this person’s behavior and/or may not have all the information that would explain it. Your view of things is not the only view.
  • Be genuine: When you are giving feedback, come from a place of support. It is not easy for any of us to change our behaviors. It often takes time and practice. You want to be willing to help the person change, if it is appropriate.
  • Give people time: Not everyone will be able to respond effectively to your feedback in the moment. Many people will need time to process before they can fully engage with you on the issue. Feedback can be an ongoing dialogue that unfolds over time.

Tips for Receiving Feedback:

  • Assume genuine intent: As you listen, assume that the person giving you feedback is trying their best to be helpful.
  • Listen and be open: Receiving feedback, both praise for our strengths and constructive acknowledgement of things we need to improve, can be difficult. Try your best to listen intently and be open to what people are telling you. It doesn’t mean you have to agree, but respect the other person enough to listen.
  • Focus on understanding: When you respond to feedback, do your best to avoid becoming defensive and arguing your case. This will only hinder the feedback process. Ask questions or make comments to get clarity, not to explain or justify yourself. This can be difficult!

Special Alert: “But…” “Because…” and “Let me tell you…” really should not come out of your mouth if you are genuinely listening. These phrases signal that you listened just long enough to begin formulating a rebuttal. Good phrases include: “I just want to make sure I understand…is this what you said?” or “Could you tell me a little more about what you mean by that?”

Very few people are really good at this. I recently had a conversation that I knew was going to trigger my defenses. I just knew it. It was a topic I felt passionately about. I could feel myself gearing up for a battle. It was almost like a physical, visceral response. You know that feeling, right? That feeling that you might just lose it. It was totally unproductive. But, I am human. We are all human.

So, I had to really catch myself. I went to my mantra: Feedback is a gift. Feedback is a gift. Feedback is a gift. I asked myself: How can I best receive the feedback in a way that is appreciative and respectful of my colleague. Then, I went to my next mantra: Seek to understand. Seek to understand. Seek to understand.

In the end, even if I didn’t completely set aside my defensiveness, we were able to have an intense but productive conversation. One that built trust and led to creatively addressing a challenge. A conversation that could have been depleting was actually energizing.

One last thing that is critical as we engage in the feedback process, is that many people have been in situations where there is no chance to speak truthfully without significant consequences. Navigating life when we cannot name what is happening, feeling day in and day out that our voices are silenced, is a heavy weight to carry. It is a weight that wears us down, wears us out.

As we think about conflict and feedback in the context of race and gender, I hope we can try to give each other grace. Women and people of color are no longer willing to be silenced. This means that they are trying to give voice to a lifetime of experiences — to generations of lifetimes. The feedback they may be giving in any particular situation is likely feedback they have tried or wanted to give in a 100 other situations, but couldn’t. This means it may take a lot of physical and emotional energy for women and people of color to give feedback to us, with the level patience we think we deserve. Please honor this. Please be kind.

If we can figure out how to genuinely talk about race and gender, we can build our capacity to talk about ANYTHING. We can unleash the creativity and innovation that has been stifled by our inability to disagree with one another productively. We will become better colleagues, friends, life partners, and parents. We will finally deploy the value of all our different lived experiences.