How to give feedback the right way

Giving feedback can be challenging, especially when you have something critical to say. How often do you ponder over saying something to a colleague or just let it slide? The workplace dynamics makes giving feedback even more daunting.

Constructive feedback can help your colleagues improve and enrich the relationship in your team. Consequently, it can bring the whole team’s performance to a higher level. However, feedback only works if the recipients are willing to accept your feedback and work on it. That does not happen automatically all the time.

However, this blog post will give you a formula for actionable feedback which your colleagues are more likely to accept and work on. Sound like something you want? Then, let's dive in.

The Formula: Situation - Behavior - Impact - Next

Before going into details of the formula, I want to emphasize that you can use this formula to make all feedback more impactful. Since most people consider it much more challenging to give critical comments, I will mainly use examples of constructive feedback (rather than praise).

First of all, you want to specify the situation on which you give your feedback. It is important to give your colleague a point of time and date to relate to. Let her know that you talk about what happened during the team meeting yesterday afternoon (not the presentation three days ago, for example).

Secondly, you describe the behavior. Make sure that you are being clear and objective. Focus on the actions that your colleague took, not her personality. Here is an example:You were so excited about the topic we discussed that you cut off Mark a few times.

Then, you make your feedback stronger by describing the impact of the above-mentioned behavior. Your colleague’s action can impact one person, a few people or the whole group.

In the above example, the act of interrupting repeatedly affects Mark's contribution to the discussion. It also has an effect on other participants who were listening to Mark. The flow of the whole meeting is also compromised. Think of the big picture and choose the impact that is most appropriate in each situation.

On one hand, it sends a stronger message when you talk about the impact on the group. “After you interrupted Mark, the whole meeting was sidetracked to a different direction for 10 minutes. We could have discussed that matter on another meeting and kept yesterday meeting short and focused otherwise.”

On another hand, your opinion is more credible when you talk about the impact on you. “After you interrupted Mark, I found it hard to follow the discussion because I was trying to guess what Mark could have said.”

Another option is to take an objective perspective and talk about the impact on a third party (e.g. Mark in the example). “After being interrupted, Marc went quiet and stopped to contribute to the discussion”. However, be careful not sounding speculative. When you say something without hard evidence (e.g. “Mark was upset”), the recipient might question the credibility of your opinions all together.

Finally, offer your colleague the next steps that she can take. Suggest to her what she could do to make it better next time. For instance: “Maybe next time you could let Mark finish his thoughts. Allow him more time to explain what he means exactly. It would help everyone understand him better. He would also feel more confident about contributing to discussions. The meeting would stay more on track.”

Here is the formula again: 

Good feedback = Situation + Behavior + Impact + Next

How you say it is as important as What you say

The way you bring your message across has a significant effect on how it would be perceived. Choose your language appropriately so your colleague will be more likely to accept it.

Here are some language tips.

Offer Suggesting Statements

If you think that something is wrong with a colleague’s method, there are three ways to bring up your opinion.

  1. In a strong statement: I think the way you implemented it was flawed.

  2. In a question: Do you think the way you implemented it was flawed?

  3. In a suggesting statement: I would suggest a few changes to the implementation next time.

Which one sounds the best for you?

The last one is my choice. The statement format is more assertive than the question format. Say, you ask the question, and the recipient’s answer is No. It would be pretty awkward for you to keep pushing your opinion forwards (i.e.You think that it was flawed). Also, a suggesting statement is more polite and deferential than a strong statement. Consider the feeling of your colleague and phrase your feedback accordingly.

Avoid the BUT Word

Sometimes it is so tempting to say: I think you did a good job but… You thought you were being nice but your colleague might actually think: There is that but again, what is wrong now? The little but quickly sets her into a defensive mode. It results in her fencing out all your constructive inputs.

When you want to deliver both positive and negative comments, use and. Or list your points separately, like this:

“First of all, I have to say that you explained the conditions to the client very thoroughly. Nicely done.

Secondly, maybe it would be better if you try to keep the consulting session a bit more focused. I found a few details that could be left out, because they were not relevant in this case. I was lost at times.”

Say it like I write it. Leave some space between the two points because they are equally important.

Use Past Tense

You want to refer to a specific behavior in the past. The use of present tense would imply that your colleague does that type of behavior all the time. It makes your feedback sound too generic and you might lose your point.

Use Verbs

Verbs are better than Adjectives because it leaves less room for interpretation. If you say that a person was rude, I might think he lost his temper with you. Others might think he was moody and didn’t make any effort to communicate. There is also a possibility that he didn’t open the door for a lady. Just to name a few.

What you *don’t* say: You were rude to a client yesterday.

What you do say: You raised your voice a few times and used unnecessarily short sentences with a client yesterday.

Go the extra mile to explain what you mean.

Take Care of Your Body Language

When you give your feedback in person, be aware of your body language. Avoid gestures that might either send recipients into a defensive mode or make them afraid for their future in the company.

  1. Don’t raise your voice. You are not angry, you just say all these critical comments to help them improve.

  2. Don’t cross your arms. You don’t want to look like you are not going to let them explain their behaviors.

  3. Don’t frown. You are not there to judge but to provide support.

Keep a friendly tone and an open body because you want to create an atmosphere of intimacy and openness. That would really help the recipient to take in your feedback.

In brief

Many people find giving constructive feedback daunting. You risk damaging your relationship with your colleagues, and sometimes, for nothing. They do not accept your opinion and won’t work on it. However, from a giver’s perspective, you just have to try your best. Formulate your feedback in the format of Situation - Behavior - Impact - Next, while carefully picking your language. We hope that this would help you give feedback better. 

 

For more on how to give feedback check our feedback guides for employees and managers.