Giving & Receiving Feedback Is Difficult — Here’s How to Do It Right

Sweaty palms, weak knees, and heavy arms. This is how I felt a couple of years ago when I received or had to give honest feedback. Do you recognize this?

Feedback is essential for a healthy organisational culture, and to work effectively with others. Being afraid of feedback creates a culture of dodging it, until it’s inevitable. Then you drop all your remarks at once, and the feedback becomes a bomb; Once dropped, it leaves a mess. At least, that’s what I see happens in a lot of teams and organisations.

What if you could see feedback as a present? That you give to someone else to help them grow, or that you decide whether on what you do with it, once you receive it. Below I’ll explain why giving and receiving feedback is tough, but you should do it, and how you can do it right.

Because after all, feedback is a present — not a bomb.

Why Feedback Matters

To understand why we give feedback, I would like to introduce you to Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham — two psychologists of the University of California. Back in 1955 they developed a model to grow interpersonal awareness, and they named it after a combination of their names: The Johari Window.

Luft and Ingham observed that some parts of our behaviour or our personality are known to ourselves and others, and some aren’t. As a result, you can draw a two-by-two matrix of four different areas filled with parts of your behaviour or personality.

The first area is the Arena. Here are traits that I know about myself and what others know about me. Most of you know for example know that I have curls. The goal is to increase the Arena, which you can do by being more open in relationship to others to build trust. Read more about that in my article Why Psychological Safety Is Essential For Your Team’s Success.

The Blind Spot is the second area. It constitutes of what others know about me, but I don’t. It can be about how I behave towards others, and maybe it’s something that I haven’t thought about in all of my life.

The Hidden Area is everything that I know of myself, but decide to keep for myself. It’s things for which I’m afraid, or will be too ashamed to tell. Luft and Ingham called it The Façade, because most people in groups keep things for themselves to maintain your relationship to others.

The Unknown Area: Here are things that neither me nor you know about me. Things that we don’t know because they never happened. Or because of our collective ignorance of these behaviours.

So what does the Johari Window have to do with feedback? Feedback is essential to grow as a person, and therefore as a team and an organisation. Simply put, there are two ways to become better at what you do: One is by reflecting to know yourself how to grow, and one is by others sharing with you how you can.

I see a lot of people trying to figure out by themselves how they can grow in what they do — because they find feedback difficult to receive. That’s a huge missed potential. Because frankly, you learn much faster if people give you feedback because it allows you to grow in what you do already, and to learn something new. So why do we avoid feedback?

Why Giving and Receiving Feedback Is Difficult

Giving feedback can be difficult because you:

  • Believe feedback to be negative and unhelpful.
  • Worry that the receiver will not like you.
  • Think the receiver can’t handle your feedback.
  • Think the receiver won’t do anything with your feedback — like last time.

Receiving feedback can be as hard as giving it, and sometimes even harder. Maybe you:

  • Believe your self-worth is diminished by the feedback you receive.
  • Had previous unhelpful or unjustified experiences.

Before explaining how to become better at giving and receiving feedback, I want to share something very important, yet so straightforward — which I see a lot of people don’t realise:

Feedback consists of two acts, giving and receiving. EIther you are responsible for doing your best on giving it, or you are responsible for doing your best at receiving it. That’s it. The other half is the other person’s responsibility, and thus not yours.

That doesn’t mean that you can just do whatever you feel like. Because you have to do it as well as you can, which you can do by applying the following principles.

Giving Feedback

How can you then make sure that your feedback is a present — not a bomb? Here’s some principles for you to give it right next time.

  • Give feedback about someone’s behaviour, not personality. Focus on the task, not the person. Because the receiver can’t change their personality, but they can change how they behave.
    Don’t: You were sloppy with your work…
    Do: You can make your work better by doing these changes…
  • Be specific and descriptive on what you are giving feedback about, so that it’s clear for the receiver what you mean.
    Don’t: You never listen to me
    Do: When you are on your phone, I feel like you’re not listening to me.
  • Use clear language, be brief and to the point, so that the person you give feedback to understands it well.
    Don’t: You are a genius!
    Do: You always come up with innovating ideas!
  • Ask before giving the receiver feedback if you can, explain why you want to give it — and wait for the receiver to accept the offer.
    Don’t: Here’s what I think about our meeting this morning…
    Do: Can I give you some feedback about the meeting this morning?
  • Speak for yourself, try not to generalize, and own the words you say. You can start doing this by using the I-message, a concept coined by psychologist Thomas Gordon in the 1960s. It means that use I instead of you if you’re referring to something. The I-message also makes you (I know) take ownership of your actions and feelings, instead of implying that they are caused by someone or something else. Because of this you won’t make any assumptions for someone else too!
    Don’t: What you wrote is unclear
    Do: I don’t understand what you wrote
  • Be constructive and show that you want to help the person by thinking about solutions for the challenges that you have raised.
  • Feedback can be about something that goes well, not necessarily about something that’s wrong. Focussing on this makes it more fun, and helps discovering the root causes of your success, and helps build on them.
    Don’t: These are the things that we could have done better…
    Do: I really appreciated when you did…
  • Give and receive feedback regularly. Don’t save all your remarks to deliver at once. Giving feedback more often will make it lighter, and easier enabling you to learn to deal with feedback positively.

Can’t wait to give feedback right away? Hold up, because it’s important as well to know how to receive it, But if you want to do it now, here’s a very concrete way of giving feedback.

For that, let me introduce you to psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg who founded Nonviolent Communication (or NVC) in the early 1960s. NVC is a communication-model used to communicate well and to defuse tense situations. People all over the world use NVC — from teachers to politicians and CEOs. In his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life Marshall B. Rosenberg shares the four components of NVC which are actually a very effective and concrete way of giving feedback:

  1. Observe something happening.
    When you do this…
  2. State how the action makes you feel.
    It makes me feel…
  3. Define the needs, values, and desires that create your feelings.
    I need for…
  4. Request of what you would like from the other person.
    I would like…

Next time you give feedback, think about a pointing finger. Because when you point to someone else, there are always three fingers pointing back at you.

Receiving Feedback

Now that you know how to give feedback to others, how can you receive feedback successfully so that you actually learn from it? Here are four tips:

  • Listen, and be quiet: What is the person actually saying? Without this you can’t learn from the feedback.
  • Ask clarifying questions: If you don’t understand the feedback, or if you want to know the specific behaviour that lead to it, ask a question. Read more in my Quick Guide To Asking Better Questions on how to do that!
    Do: Earlier you said that you have the feeling that I’m not engaged. When was the last time that happened?
  • Don’t take it personal. I know it’s easier said than done, but see the feedback as something you can learn from. It’s about your work — not you.
  • Thank the giver, show you are grateful. As said, giving feedback can be very challenging and scary to do, so thank the giver for sharing insights on how you can grow as a person. This will more likely get you some valuable feedback the next time!

Just like giving feedback, you can grow in becoming better at receiving feedback. There are five levels of receiving feedback:

  1. Discard the feedback:This has nothing to do with me.
  2. Defend yourself and your acts: No, that’s not how it was. It went more like…
  3. Explain why you did something. I see what you mean, but I did that because…
  4. Understand the feedback, and accept it.
  5. Change, reinforce, or remain: You process the feedback and make your own conscious choice what you do with it.

Asking for feedback

That’s it. Now you know why and how you should give and receive feedback. But how to start? Just ask your colleague or team to give you feedback, and share these rules with them on how to do it. And if that’s too difficult, you could always ask for advice instead of feedback, as mentioned in this Harvard Business Review article. That way, you usually get more positive and concrete feedback for you to grow!

And if you gave or received some feedback, go feedback meta by asking for feedback on how you gave or received it. It helps a lot making it less scary, and becoming better at doing it.

Feedback plays a huge role in your organisation’s culture. Want to build the right culture, so that people can do their best work? Or do you just want to organise a session where your team shares feedback — not as a bomb, but as a gift? Reach out, cause I’d love to help you.

Making working together work @ marcvollebregt.com | @hyperisland alumni