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? Workplace dynamics make 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.

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 the details of the formula, I want to emphasize that you can use it 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, it's important to be specific. Give your colleague a reference point including a specific example of when they may have demonstrated this behavior. For example, let them know that you're referring to what happened during the team meeting yesterday afternoon, not in their general interactions with others.


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


Then, 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 meeting became sidetracked in a different direction. It would have been better to stay on topic until we've reached a solution and then plan a discussion on the new issue you raised in another meeting.”

On the other 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 would 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 contributing to the discussion”. However, be careful not to sound speculative. When you say something without hard evidence (e.g. “Mark was upset”), the recipient might question the credibility of your opinion.


Finally, offer some suggestions for the next steps they can take. What could they change for next time? For instance: “Maybe next time you could give Mark more time to explain and elaborate on what he means exactly so we can all understand his point of view. He would also feel more confident about contributing to discussions. A great way to show you're listening and taking his opinion into consideration is to follow up with a question. It will also help keep everyone on track if we focus each meeting on one topic at a time.”

Here is the formula again: 

Good feedback = Situation + Behavior + Impact + Next

How you say it is just as important as what you say.

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

Here are some language tips to keep in mind:

Offer Suggesting Statements

There are three styles you can adopt when giving 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 best for you? Consider what you are most comfortable with and, most importantly, the style you think your colleague would respond to best and phrase your feedback accordingly.

Avoid the BUT Word

Sometimes it's 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's wrong now? This can quickly set someone into a defensive mode.

When you want to deliver both positive and constructive 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.”

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 the present tense would imply that your colleague demonstrates this 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 they leave less room for interpretation. 

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.

Be conscious 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 question their future in the company.

  1. Don’t raise your voice. You are not angry, you're just giving them advice to help them improve.

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

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

To create an atmosphere of openness, keep a friendly tone and an open body. This will really help the recipient to take in your feedback.

In brief

Many people find giving constructive feedback daunting. If you formulate your feedback into Situation - Behavior - Impact - Next, you can ensure you're giving actionable constructive feedback that will help your peers, manager or report improve their performance. 


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