Learn to Love Feedback (Part 3): How to Give Constructive Feedback

By: Angie (Min Ah) Park

Welcome back to the journey on feedback! This week, we have been discussing how to embrace feedback in the workplace by mastering the art of giving and receiving feedback well

Yesterday, we took a deep dive into receiving feedback, and we began with “receiving” rather than “giving,” because giving feedback requires us to extend the same foundational skills that we develop from learning how to receive feedback well. 

Think about the skills we discussed such as having emotional intelligence, practicing empathy, and maintaining humility. These apply to giving feedback too, and when we are great feedback receivers, it significantly improves our ability to be great feedback givers.

So, with these foundational skills under our belt, let’s turn to practical communication strategies to provide feedback with impact. There are 5 critical steps to giving great feedback. We will unpack each of these 5 steps here!

Step 1: Prime the Audience

Before we provide feedback, we want to ensure that the person receiving feedback is in the right mindset to take the feedback in. This is where empathy comes in. Centring the perspective and psychological safety of the person receiving feedback is an important first step to any great feedback conversation.

Priming also gives us the opportunity to turn a potentially awkward conversation–where the other person may be feeling defensive and insecure–into a discussion for mutual growth and positive change.

We can start by clarifying to them what our intentions for this conversation are and end with a question that allows the other person to determine whether they are ready for this conversation now.

An example of this can sound like: My intention for this conversation is to help support you in your new role on this team. I am going to give you some feedback that may be difficult to hear, but I believe that this is an important conversation to have for us to work better together as a team. Fostering an inclusive environment is personally important to me, and I would appreciate your insight on this as well. Can you spare five minutes now to talk about the team meeting we had on Tuesday?

By doing this, you are: 1) de-escalating any tension associated with the conversation by explaining your intentions, 2) outlining some positive goals or outcomes that this feedback conversation can achieve, and 3) giving your receiver the control over when (and perhaps even how - ex. one-on-one meeting, virtual appointment, etc.) they can receive your feedback.

As a final caveat to this priming stage, be prepared for the feedback receiver to say that they may not be ready to hear your feedback now. They can say “tomorrow” or “next week,” based on their psychological readiness and level of comfort entering the conversation. And this is okay! 

Providing feedback when the receiver is in the best state of mind to hear it ensures that the impact of the feedback conversation is greater and preserves a feedback-friendly environment for future conversations.

Step 2: Frame the Conversation

Once the receiver agrees to participate in the conversation, we can build clarity around what you would like to discuss with them.

Framing means clearly identifying the action or behaviour you want to give feedback on. It’s important to use objective (neutral) words when describing what you observed and point to specific behaviours or actions.

Here’s an example: “In our team meeting on Tuesday, I observed you interrupting Sandy many times and talking over her when she was trying to explain her thought process. I know she didn’t say anything to you in the moment, but I did see her getting upset.”

In this example, the feedback provider is only focusing on what they saw and heard based on a specific situation. The statement is intentionally formed with more verbs than adjectives (ex. I observed, you interrupted, you talked over).

This is because adjectives attribute judgment (ex. A person can appear “aggressive” or “rude”), while verbs simply describe the action or behaviour (i.e. someone either said or did something, or they did not).

Pointing out to the receiver what you saw them do/say may feel uncomfortable, but this is a critical step for creating clarity around the events that transpired.

(Check out: Our learning experience on giving feedback provides additional tools on using constructive language to frame the feedback conversation!)

Step 3: Show the Impact

Help the receiver differentiate between their intentions and impact. Give them the benefit of the doubt that their intentions may have been different from the impact that their words or actions had on you or others. This mismatch can happen to the best of us, and this is where feedback can come in to help us become better leaders and colleagues!

Showing the impact will help the recipient see the bigger picture of a situation and contextualize the feedback conversation further. Continue to use neutral language in this step and be as specific and explicit as you can without assigning judgment or blame

What showing impact can sound like: “I work with Sandy regularly, so I can tell you that Tuesday’s meeting had a big impact on her. I had a client call with her later that day, and during the call, she stayed mostly silent and did not share her ideas and recommendations as she normally does.”

Remember that the goal of this step is to help the recipient get clarity on exactly what went wrong and where they can improve. It is not to make them feel bad (which can trigger defensiveness) nor to punish them for their actions, but you are also not sugar-coating the fact that their actions resulted in a negative impact for someone else.

Step 4: Open Up a Dialogue

Effective learning often takes place through open dialogue. Take a look at this HBR article on why it’s important for leaders to turn feedback into a two-way conversation!

Dialogue creates an opportunity for us to discuss solutions and commit to change by motivating personal growth.

At this stage, it is critical to listen. In the previous stages, you have already done a lot of talking. To guide the feedback recipient into a dialogue, we can ask them open-ended questions based on what you have just shared with them and ask for their perspectives and insights.

Examples of this can sound like: “What do you think about what I’ve shared with you so far?” or “How did you feel after Tuesday’s meeting?”

An important goal of this step is for the feedback recipient to feel heard. So, be prepared to give them some time to process the information that you shared with them, answer any questions to address any misunderstandings or inaccuracies, and to hear their side of the situation.

Think back to being on the receiving end of feedback from the discussion last week. Recall that receiving feedback demands much emotional intelligence and agility, and that these may be the skills that the receiver is practicing in the moment. 

Approach the dialogue with empathy, and bring humility at every turn. Keep in mind that you may also learn something new from the receiver’s insights.

Step 5: Set a Commitment

Finally, set a commitment for action. This step has two parts: 1) articulating what the commitment is, and 2) making a plan to carry it through. 

An effective commitment is specific and actionable. We must also involve the recipient in building the commitment, as they will ultimately be the one to determine what happens next.

In this step, we can provide the recipient with our suggestions (focusing on immediate actions they can take or behaviours they can change), then ask the recipient for buy-in on the commitment that we proposed. 

This step can also progress naturally into a dialogue to arrive at the most effective strategies and plans. At the end of this stage, however, both you and the recipient should be able to summarize in one sentence what the key takeaways are (i.e. what actions or behaviours need to change and how).

Here is an example of this final stage: “I know that you value Sandy as a teammate, but based on what I observed on Tuesday, I believe that your relationship with her has been damaged. Based on this conversation, I know that repairing this relationship is important to both you and me. What do you think you can do going forward? If you need some time to think about this, you don’t have to tell me right away, we can discuss this further in our next check-in as well.”

And that brings us to the end of today’s post on giving constructive feedback! This also concludes our 3-part series on Learning to Love Feedback. We hope you found these steps helpful and invite you to try them out in your next feedback conversation.

If you know you or your team can benefit from more tools and practice on feedback, check out The Humphrey Group’s new comprehensive learning experience on Learn to Love Feedback! This experience takes you through the full journey of feedback from establishing why a feedback-friendly environment is integral to the workplace to receiving and giving feedback. 

For any questions, contact us online or at our office locations in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Mexico City!