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Giving Feedback… the Right Way. Every Time!

We’ve all been in the position of having to tell someone how to correct a mistake, or improve their performance, but how many of them actually understand, and hear what you are saying? Have you ever felt awkward, ignored, or even disrespected after sharing your advice with someone? Have you ever needed to deliver “constructive criticism” only to wonder if it was going to make any real difference at all? Would you like to guide those who would receive your communication into the most receptive state of mind for learning, and integrating what you have to teach to them? If so, I invite you to read on!

There’s no sense in wasting any time, expressing something that either won’t be taken in properly or isn’t coming from the right place. As leaders, trainers, coaches, healers, mentors, teachers, business owners, managers and professionals of every kind, we are tasked with both the responsibility and the onus attached to the results we get in the world. The world is made up of people and people hear things very differently from one another. If you want to maximize the energy you spend managing these interactions, it helps to accept a convenient assumption: The meaning of a communication is the response you get. It’s not what you think you said that matters, it’s what they think they’ve heard. Therefore, be careful, be strategic, and be clear.

These are some important prerequisites to be satisfied before critiquing others:

First, you need to know why it’s necessary and be clear about what’s motivating the decision to express it to them. Have a goal in mind that is mutually beneficial and easy to understand, for example, to improve customer relations, boost team morale, generate increased sales, decrease wastefulness, create an atmosphere of professionalism, etc. In the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey said that habit number 2 is “begin with the end in mind.” This point couldn’t be emphasized enough.

Second, the person giving the critique should possess the integrity, reasoning skills, and willingness to apply self-­inquiry to the process before verbalizing it or expressing it. That means that critiques shouldn’t be guided by popular opinion, hearsay, fallacious appeal to authority, or assumptions. They should be based upon the facts surrounding the behaviors, and they should be actionable. What specific stretch in their behavior(s) would you like them to apply immediately, or the very next time they have the opportunity? Ask for what you want, rather than focusing so much on what you don’t want. Install a clear picture of what you want the end-result to be by careful word choices. It’s less effective to spend time describing what you don’t want.

Third, there should be no malice, or negative emotions coming from the one giving it. This might seem like something too obvious to mention, but all too often people express criticisms which come across as overly personal. This happens because the tone and word choices used were tainted with unexpressed resentments. If you aren’t mindful, these resentments can bleed through communication, even unintentionally. If you have a history of unresolved conflict with this person, however subtle, be extra careful when offering your critique. Ignoring this could be disastrous, and it isn’t an effective way to create positive changes in their behavior. Be proactive but also positive! If you give in to the urge to “nit­pick” or tear them down, it’ll lead to less than positive results. Butting heads like that leads to failure in relationships because it is not based on a win­-win mindset. Inflicting your point of view upon them won’t accomplish setting them straight, you’ll just confirm for them how unreasonable or off­-base you are, in their model of the world.

He that complies against his will

Is of his own opinion still

Which he may adhere to, yet disown,

For reasons to himself best known

Butler, Samuel (1612 – 1680) Hudibras, Part III, Canto iii, lines 547 – 550

Another convenient assumption to adopt here is: Respect for the person you are working with’s model of the world. If you don’t do this, they just won’t relate to what you’ve said. In my experience, there is a wide range of circumstances which require a critique from a critic. A well­-given critique can be useful and promote growth, but only when it is well­-taken by the one being critiqued. Willingly accepting a critique is crucial to its usefulness, for both parties involved. For that reason, I prefer the term “feedback”, instead of “criticism” or “critique”. Somehow the word feedback tends to be taken in a softer way by the recipient, whereas the term criticism is often associated with fault­finding and value judgments about the person (rather than the behavior).

A person is not their behavior, is another convenient assumption we need to bear in mind, even though in the practical sense we calibrate our responses to adapt to their behavior. We do this because it is the most valuable information we have in order to discover and begin understanding what’s going on for that person below the surface. We can’t read their minds, but we can observe the patterns manifesting in their behavior and adjust to them. We can assume, for constructive purposes that, All behavior is geared for change, and the current behavior is chosen as the best choice for that person, from their worldview, at the time. This convenient assumption states that their behavior is motivated, at some level, by positive intentions, even if the results are less than favorable. If we don’t assume this, no beneficial feedback would be possible. It’s important to keep this in mind or we might take things too personally.

When we assume the opposite (that the way other people behave should be taken personally) and communicate from that frame of mind, it assures only rejection from them, which is not what you intend. The last resort, if we are taking a leadership role, would be firing them from the job, or expelling them from the group in some way. It might come to that but there are many opportunities for re-adjustment, adaptation, and feedback along the way to it. Effective leadership and management of personnel demand a more thoughtful approach if employment longevity, reduced turnover and cultural development within the organization is desired. Giving proper feedback is a significant step that must be mastered before reaching that point.

For the remainder of this article, I shall refer to what I believe is the proper method of communicating for behavioral guidance. I refer to it as “feedback”. I insist on this term, rather than “critique”, even though I acknowledge that there are many situations where that term is accepted as the default (such as a fine arts critique). I do this because it gets the most consistent results and the least resistance from the one who receives it. In my experience, the term simply sounds more subjectively neutral to most people.

When giving good feedback, choose the right time and place to give it. If you wait too long, your moment for optimum learning will be gone. If you do it too soon, or when they aren’t able to give you their full attention, or when it would be socially awkward for them, the window of opportunity will be missed. Remembering that it’s not just about what you say, but what they hear, you’ll want to make sure that what you say is concise, well­-researched and focused on action.

It’s at least as easy to give lousy feedback as it is to give good feedback. Remember that communication styles vary greatly among people, even within the same organization or subgroup. If you’re considerate and intent on getting the message across, you can choose the language in your feedback that will convey the meaning to them in a way that hey can relate to. The whole point of this is to help them to absorb what is useful, and help them to change the behavior. They will only succeed in this by grasping its importance. You can think of it as conspiring for mutual success. Avoid the blame­-game, it’s not constructive and triggers others to feel personally attacked. Instead, get into their point of view first, walk a mile in their shoes, and take the time to consider what the situation looked like for them, emotionally, as well as analytically. Unless you can do this, your results will be hit and miss.

Now, to help you channel your feedback into a useful vessel, I am going to teach you a simple method called “The Feedback Sandwich”. It’s extremely easy to learn and will work wonders for you, if you let it. The theory behind it is deceptively simple. The human brain’s I.Q. functions most optimally when the organism feels safe. Studies have shown that when individuals felt attacked, verbally or socially inferior, their cognitive performance lowered significantly.

This means that if you break rapport with someone, they are far less likely to process what you have to say with their full intellect and will most likely reject some or all of what you have to say. It’s also true that people tend to have better BS Detectors than we give them credit for. Even when it isn’t verbalized, the pre­conscious portions of the mind’s awareness seems to know when being duped or handed a load of bull. They may not acknowledge it on the surface, but their nervous systems are delivering the message to them nonetheless. This is why it’s important to be sincere, honest and genuine. It increases the likelihood of what you have to say being accepted and acknowledged.

Without stating it as such, we’ve already covered part of step number 1 of the Feedback Sandwich:

  1. State something positive, specific and believable about what they did. If you’re genuine about it, it will probably be accepted by them. Make sure you don’t just pick something at random. Choose something they did well and tell them why you liked it. This might also be a good time to compliment them if you can be sincere and believable. If you’re successful, they will feel acknowledged and safe because they will realize that you’re not just there to criticize them. Now they are receptive to step

  2. Give them a specific stretch. They are now more receptive, so give them some facts that will help them to understand the stretch you are giving for their behavior. Make sure it’s something they can actually do. Focus on the behavior you want them to change, and state it in the positive. Avoid saying the word “but” at this point. It will only raise the emotional wall between you and invalidate the progress you made in step 1. Don’t give more than 1 or 2 stretches (give only 1, if that stretch is difficult for them).

  3. Give an overall positive comment. Encourage them. Talk about how you appreciate their role and/or the progress they’ve made so far. Pull their mind out of the previous step, so that they don’t linger too long in what they did wrong. The stretch will sink in better this way because the energy they’ll need to start incorporating it comes from positive self­-belief, not ruminating over mistakes.

The Feedback Sandwich model is a basic form of giving feedback that can be used at home, in the workplace, and even in the classroom. There are other, more advanced ways to create in-depth feedback loops, which I can teach you about in future articles. The advanced versions are a bit more involved, and require more explanation than I gave in this article, but they are based on the same underlying principles. Learn the basics and we’ll build upon that foundation to bigger and better things.

That’s it! It’s just 3 simple steps. If you’ve understood what I’ve written here, you are equipped to give great feedback, and to have it received in the best way possible. Moving forward, it’ll become a habit once you’ve done it a few times. There’s no need to wait. You can start using this method immediately. Think of someone right now that you feel needs your advice. Follow the 3 steps, and frame your comments accordingly. See how much better it goes when you’ve made use of the Feedback Sandwich. Watch how easy it is. No unnecessary drama. No more defensive behavior. No awkward feelings inside either of you. Try it with your kids too, if you have any!

Remember, when giving a constructive critique, there’s no need to get yourself into a pickle, just use the Feedback Sandwich and let them digest what you tell them in bite­-sized pieces.

Suggested Reading for Strategic Communication:

Words That Work, by Frank Luntz

Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff

Don’t Think of a Blue Elephant, by George Lakoff

The Power of a Positive No, by William Ury

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie

About the Author:

Carlos M. Casados is an expert in strategic communication, conflict resolution, Neuro­-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and hypnosis. He is an executive coach and group trainer in sales, stress­-management, conflict resolution, and personal development. To get in contact, dial (530) 433 – 4569

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