Giving Honest 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 second post on this subject. If you missed it, see the first here.

How do you give others honest feedback in a way that encourages and respects diverse opinions?

This is a great question and something more of us need to discuss. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but below are a few things that I try put into practice:

Use subjective language,
owning biases and vantage points.

I bring my biases into conversations no matter what I do. So I find it best to own that and make it part of the discussion rather attempting to hide it.

Much of our feedback is also subjective. Indicating the subjectivity of my feedback, even through subtle language, leaves some room for disagreement, discussion, and learning. 

Here’s an example of objective-sounding design criticism: "The new color doesn't work as well as the last color did." It sounds so final and absolute. Instead, might say something like, "The last color worked better for me in these ways…" Note that there’s no objective truth for color; color is subjective and perceived differently by every person. By saying what my color experience is when providing feedback, it acknowledges that others may (or will) have different experiences that are also valid and worth consideration.

Clarify the logic or why.

It’s easier to tell people what I’d like them to do then to share the issue or the opportunity that I’d like to see addressed. However, I’ve had the most success in collaborations and team-building by putting in the extra work to get to the heart of things.

For example, if I just said, "I've noticed you're the first to respond in meetings and think it might be nice if you sometimes wait for others to share first,” the recipient of that feedback might make any number of assumptions on my logic, the issue, or the opportunity behind my suggestion. They might assume they’ve offended someone, they’re coming across too strongly with their responses, or that their eagerness or knowledgeability is a negative trait. Hopefully they’d ask a follow-up question, but why make them?

Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.
— Brené Brown

Alternatively, if I share more of the why as part of my feedback, I’m much more clear about the meaning and hope of my feedback, which is ultimately kinder to the recipient. Here’s what that might look like: “I've noticed you're the first to respond in meetings and think it might be nice if you sometimes wait for others to share first. Because you're in a position of authority and everyone respects your opinions, once you speak it feels like the end of the discussion. If you help others sometimes speak first, the discussion might still end with your contribution, but others will be able to share their ideas and contribute to the conversation."

This more detailed feedback might help the recipient take the core of the feedback and leave the specific suggestion if they have an alternative solution that suits them better. Ultimately, it gives the recipient more insight to work from — including a better sense of where I’m coming from so they can make more informed changes which they can own completely.

Indicate the level of confidence.
Or note if there’s a directive.

I sometimes have strong opinions. Other times I have a sense of something, but am still somewhat undecided. Rather than giving feedback the same delivery in each case, I try to give the recipient a indication of my confidence or the firmness of my stance.

For instance, "I noticed something and wanted to share in case this resonates…" is different than "I feel strongly that it's inappropriate to [something] and I’d like you to stop."

As someone who manages others, the practice of indicating my level of firmness in my feedback helps me distinguish between collaborative brainstorming with a direct report and stern feedback that I expect to be received as explicit direction. It’s central to me practicing situational leadership.

It’s worth noting, you don’t have to be a manager to practice this. This can make for more thoughtful leaders and relationships in and outside of the workplace and managerial roles. (Just don’t try to give someone a firm directive who isn’t ultimately accountable to you.)

Ask for a response.

By closing my feedback with a question, I hope to empower the recipient to share their point of view.

Asking for a response can be a subtle way to share that, like the recipient, I'm open to learning and changing as part of my relationship with them. Even when I feel strongly, I ask questions after providing feedback. After all, I can be wrong. For instance, perhaps they see something I don't and can respond in a way that changes my point of view.

By closing my feedback with something like "Does that sound fair?" or "What do you think?" I hope to empower the person receiving feedback to tell me their initial impressions. Even if they choose to take time before responding, I feel better knowing I left the conversation open to further discussion and myself open to learning something new.

I’d note a few things to keep in mind, however:

  1. It’s best to customize the ask to the situation.
    This doesn’t work well if you end every conversation with the same call for feedback. That habit can weaken the message by coming across more like a communication tick or filler phrase instead of a sincere request for a response.

  2. It can take some courage and vulnerability.
    By being open, you might hear that your feedback landed hard for the recipient — something that might not otherwise be shared, but that will cause you to consider further refining how you deliver feedback. Listening and remaining non-defensive is equally challenging and important if you’re going to imply this tactic.

  3. This will feel more natural to some than to others.
    I’ve found that this specifically is a more Western practice. For example, in many Asian cultures, it’s taboo to respond to feedback or a directive, much less to politely offer an alternative the point of view of the person delivering the feedback. I’ve also found that Millennials and Generation Z are more likely to use and respond naturally to these sorts of prompts than other generations.


Comment below if there’s something you’ve tried that you’d add to the responses above or if there’s a “gotcha” that we should all be mindful of in the above.

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