By Simon Day, Toastmasters International
From the moment we are born we are both receiving and giving feedback. Feedback from family and friends shapes us when we are young and continues to play an important part in our adult lives.
Considering that feedback contributes so much to who we are and who we are becoming, I find it very surprising that so little attention is paid to how effectively we deliver, receive and act on feedback at work, and elsewhere.
To help deliver specific feedback sincerely and supportively I’ll outline some simple yet profound principles that will help transform your approach to feedback. And easy way to remember the approach is FAST:
- From the heart
I call these the four cornerstones because if just one is missing, the feedback will fall down and its impact will be lost. All four are essential.
1. From the Heart
Empathy is at the root of all meaningful human communication. When I have been sitting across a table from someone delivering feedback and felt genuine care and concern on their part, their feedback is powerful, even life-changing. The exchange has always begun with questions regarding wellbeing, then the feedback has been tactfully adapted to what I might have been able to absorb based on current skill, experience, and emotional levels.
I have a fundamental rule when I am delivering feedback: I do not address the subject of feedback until I have asked the recipient three questions about themselves. This may provide additional insight into how the individual is being affected – positively or negatively – by external factors and help you decide how to word your feedback.
In any feedback situation, care needs to be shown. If you are delivering feedback, you must be courageous enough to ask yourself, “Do I really care about this individual as an individual – their progression, welfare, hopes, and aspirations? If this question cannot be answered with an honest ‘yes’, it is the wrong time – or you are the wrong person – to deliver feedback.
If you are receiving feedback, you must immediately ask yourself: “Is care being shown? Does this person really care about me as an individual – my progression, welfare, hopes, and aspirations?” If the answer feels like a ‘no’, then that feedback should be taken with at least a pinch of salt, or possibly a bucket. Of course, if there are valid statements or recommendations, then have the professional grace to take them on board. However, any statements that are overly critical or appear insincere should not be taken personally; the damage of allowing negative feedback to fester can be irreparable.
Remember, the deliverer is also a person. They are imperfect and their perspective is limited. Be gracious. Don’t be confrontational. You don’t have to agree with everything. Take something that you can act on and politely discard anything that is unhelpful.
We all get to a point where our own knowledge, skills, and experience have been exhausted. At this moment, we want someone wiser, more experienced and more skillful to say: “I can see you’re struggling with this. You’ve done brilliantly to get this far. When I was in this position, this is what I learned and found worked for me to move things forward. I suggest you try the following…”. How inspiring might that be?
In my work as a teacher, my feedback to students is broken into three distinct parts. First, I always offer praise on something they are doing well. This brings a feeling of pride to the individual and opens them up to receive any subsequent advice. Secondly, I suggest an area of focus, something they need to do to move the work forward. For example: “Congratulations on using some excellent descriptive language in this piece of writing. To move forward, we need to make sure your use of punctuation becomes more controlled and secure”. Good feedback, right? No! It is not actionable. It is missing the third – and most vital – element.
The third part of the feedback is the challenge. This is the invitation to act, to implement, to practice. For a student, my challenge might be as follows: “Add a further paragraph to your story. Highlight all of the commas and full stops you are using to show that you are remembering to include them in your sentences.” That will drive forward the progress of the student’s writing and hold them accountable for implementing the feedback given.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all the feedback given was broken into those three elements: praise, recommendation, and challenge? That sort of feedback comes from the heart, shows genuine care and can be acted upon.
Feedback that lacks specificity also lacks power. If the individual giving the feedback is not specific, they undermine their own credibility and professed expertise, robbing the recipient of an opportunity to grow. Generalized feedback shows a lack of due care, preparation and is not actionable, so fails to meet all three cornerstones.
Many people talk about the ‘praise sandwich’. You offer praise, give suggested improvements and end with more praise. As mentioned, when I offer feedback to students, I do so in three parts: praise, recommendation, and challenge. Whilst the ‘praise sandwich’ structure might boost the confidence of someone in the earliest stages of development, it eventually becomes a disservice as it gives a false impression of progress and can erode trust. People need to be shown how to improve and be given specific action points. As long as it is delivered empathically and with a clear path to progress, there is no rule for the ratio of praise to recommendations. The sincerity of the one delivering the feedback is always more critical than how the points are structured, but any recommendations must show sincere desire to help the individual and be accompanied by specific strategies or actions that can be implemented.
For example, imagine someone telling someone else: “As you have said you would like to improve your fitness, I recommend you go to the gym.” This is actionable, but not specific. If that same person said, “Go to the gym each Friday at 6pm for 60 minutes and do these four exercises to improve your leg strength and overall fitness,” then that changes everything. Specificity is the key to progress because it empowers the other person to act.
I am confident much of the feedback delivered in our workplaces, communities, and homes is well-intentioned but can lack sensitivity, specificity, and ideas as to how it can be applied. The more specific the feedback, the quicker the progress.
The more time that elapses between the event occurring and feedback being received, the less impact it will have. Timeliness is key. Even if a more prolonged and detailed evaluation is not feasible immediately after the event has taken place, even a small verbal affirmation will help provide necessary assurance and boost confidence. There is no influence so marring to performance in the workplace as uncertainty.
There’s an old saying: “Actions speak louder than words.” If a time is agreed for feedback to be received and the one delivering it runs arrives late or does not show up at all, what is really being said? “You are not my most important priority.” When someone is delivering feedback, the one receiving it should be made to feel like they are the only person on earth. The deliverer is in a significant position of trust regarding the recipient’s career, confidence and (in some cases) mental and emotional well-being. Timely feedback is more likely to show empathy and retain sufficient coverage to be both specific and actionable, thus meeting the other cornerstones. If it is late or rushed, it is at best likely to lack sufficient detail or sensitivity to have any real impact.
What happens if the individual receiving the feedback is late or doesn’t turn up? It is a sign of disrespect to the person that has prepared to deliver it. It says, “I don’t care what you have to say – I don’t need your help and don’t feel like I can learn anything from you”. This creates a negative impression and breaks trust.
If you are delivering feedback, be prompt. If you are receiving it, turn up on time and be prepared to chase up someone – even if they are senior – when feedback is not being received promptly.
The importance of feedback and how it is delivered cannot be overemphasized. Use the four cornerstones and give feedback from the heart and ensure it is actionable, specific and timely. You’ll find that relationships will benefit, and you’ll also help others achieve their potential.
Simon Day is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organization that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland.
Members follow a structured educational program to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit Toastmasters International.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.