Nuances of Feedback

I received a couple of really thoughtful questions around giving and receiving honest feedback from a member of AIGA DC’s Shine Mentorship Initiative. I’m sharing my initial responses with hopes they help others.

This is the third post on this subject. See the first here and the second here.

So what else is there to keep in mind with feedback?

There’s a lot more to unpack around the topic of feedback that I didn’t get into in the last two posts. While I still don’t have time to fully analyze them now, I want to at least highlight a few areas that influence giving and receiving feedback as I hope we keep these in mind.


Giving and receiving feedback are inextricably linked. Humans are social creatures that analyze relationships and behaviors in our down time. We’re raised with the social norm of reciprocation. “When someone does you a favor, you feel obligated to return the favor at some point,” says Matthew Lieberman in Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Among other things, this means that it’s natural for us to respond to feedback that was given to help our development and social standing by at some later point providing feedback that does the same. This is a healthy reciprocation that can build trust and develop healthy social bonds. (Yay!)

This topic that can certainly be explored more and broken down into salient points beyond what I’ve shared here.

Don’t give feedback if you’re not open to receiving feedback. Work to become more open to constructive feedback.

However, for now, I offer one rule:

Feedback & Power Dynamics

It’s fairly easy for me to talk about feedback while considering the balanced relationships and team cultures I work to build. However, not all environments aim for balance. Especially in unbalanced environments, the relationship between power and feedback is very important.

For instance, many systems and cultures limit who can give feedback to those few in positions of power. This creates environments that will naturally limit the possibility of giving feedback that, as my second post discusses: “encourages and respects diverse opinions.” Our surroundings and cultures are important factors in how we relate and communicate with one another. They can privilege some while leaving others at a disadvantage. Often, these systems are built in a way that enables feedback to flow from but not to those in power. In these environments, I’ve found that feedback is more frequently a directive “from the top” and less frequently a discussion.

Can the person I’m giving feedback to give me feedback as easily? If not, why is that? And is there something I can do to change that?

Can I provide feedback to the person I’m receiving feedback from just as easily?

For now, I leave you with what I would ask if assessing how my environment might be creating an imbalanced dynamic for feedback:

Feedback & Consent

Stemming from the relationship between power and feedback, there’s a lot that can be unpacked around consent and feedback.

One time, a former coworker walked up to me and told me they liked my hair better straight because it was “professional” and “new and improved” compared my wearing my hair in its naturally curly state. I hadn’t requested feedback from that person. They didn’t ask me if they could share their thoughts on my hair. Instead, they provided unsolicited feedback on something as personal, gendered, and deeply cultural as my physical appearance. To be clear, I’m as professional with curly hair as I am with straight hair. Any other perception is just bias.

Feedback should be about specific behavior. Feedback should not be about the person or their attributes, including: personality, physical appearance, and/or mannerisms.

If it’s hard for you to know when to give feedback and what feedback is warranted, I’d follow this simple rule as you continue to self-educate:

Why? Well, again, there’s a lot to unpack there. But the short version: what you think is a simple choice or optional style that can use improvement might be cultural, religious, tied to their sense of identity, or any number of more deeply rooted things that you know very little or nothing at all about. Your feedback might actually be you projecting your biases onto someone else’s identity. That’s not cool. And frankly, if you don’t have their consent to share this feedback — IE: they asked you specifically what you think, it’s just not your place.

Shall we further clarify these points together in the comments? Chime in if there’s something you’d add to the above, if anything can be better said, or if there’s something you’d rebut.

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