Feedback is difficult.
That shouldn't come as a shock to any of us, because we've been on both the giving and receiving end of feedback, and it's been difficult. It's tough when it's someone you care about, and tough when it's someone you 'just work with'.
But sometimes we make it more difficult than it needs to be.
In my experience coaching leaders and managers, crafting feedback and visualizing the conversation is something they spend way too much time on, especially when compared to the actual dialogue. The number of times I've heard "That went way better than I expected", or "I'm not sure what I was so concerned about" is too many to count.
Note that I don't believe you should 'give' someone feedback. The best feedback is a conversation. "Can we talk about something I saw?" is likely to go better than "Can I give you some feedback?"
Here are 5 dimensions to keep in mind when preparing to enter a feedback conversation. They might just make it easier to understand what you're trying to say, provide you with an outline for a smoother conversation, and reduce some of the tension on both sides of the dialogue.
1. Perceived vs. Absolute
2. Authentic vs. Agenda-Driven
3. Concise vs. Lengthy
4. Timely vs. Delayed
5. Specific vs. Ambiguous.
For anyone who loves a good acronym, you can think about P.A.C.T.S. It wasn't intentional, but hey, who am I to get in the way of a solid memory device...
1. Perceived vs. Absolute.
Your brain is conspiring against your grip on reality. Ok, maybe that's a little dramatic, but in essence, your brain has amazingly evolved mechanisms that do what they can to see patterns (even where none exist), and protect you (even when you don't need it).
As an aside, there are lots of books on social science and behavioral economics to help you peer deeper into how and why this is happening (anything from Richard Thaler, Dan Ariely, Amos Tversky, or Dan Kahneman are good starts).
You can only see things from your perspective, and your perspective is not the absolute truth. As often as we're sure that we're right, we're not. And when you approach a conversation with someone else assuming that you've got it right, all they're going to do is either confirm your beliefs or lie; you've set up a confrontation, not a dialogue.
If, however, you can put to the side what you think you 'know', and provide your perception of what's transpired, you'll be surprised how many times you find out something new and revelatory. The other benefit of entering a feedback dialogue with a willingness to share your perception, is that you don't have to worry about defending your point of view. It's not a matter of right or wrong, win or lose.
Feedback isn't a zero-sum game, and when you recognize that you're sharing a point of view, you open yourself up to having a point of view shared with you.
2. Authentic vs. Agenda-Driven.
Let's be clear, any time you share feedback there's an agenda behind it. Whether that's because reinforcing or changing the behavior will make life easier for you, make someone like you more, get you a promotion or some other recognition, or because you need to get it off your chest, there's always an element of yourself in the feedback conversation.
What I mean when I say 'authentic', is that the feedback should be more about the other person than it is about you.
If you can't genuinely say that this feedback is going to help the individual more than it is going to help you, then maybe keep it to yourself. When you see or hear something, and it frustrates you, but doesn't seem to have a negative affect on anyone else, that's a clear sign to pause and consider why you want to have this feedback conversation.
It doesn't mean your feedback is not valid.
You may be the only one willing to say something that others are thinking, or you may be the first to see a behavior that is just starting to present itself. In those instances, though, ask yourself why you want to have this dialogue. If it's authentic, then go for it.
3. Concise vs. Lengthy.
When you're in the right environment, you're going to give and get a lot of feedback. That feedback is like gentle (or not so gentle) nudges to keep you and your group moving towards your goals. What happens when feedback dialogues become lengthy? You dread them because they take too much time. People avoid them because they're unproductive. Less work gets done because you're spending time talking about things as opposed to actually doing things.
There is no magic formula for how much time a feedback dialogue should take.
In my experience they tend to take more time when the relationship is new and people are focused on reassuring each other that the relationship is intact. Then the dialogue drops off precipitously when people get comfortable with one another and start losing focus on how to have a good feedback conversation. Then they reach a point of equilibrium when people realize that they've gotten too comfortable, they're not following the dimensions of feedback any longer, and they get back into healthy habits.
When you can share the feedback, hear and understand one another's perception of the situation, and have a way to move forward, then the conversation is over.
4. Timely vs. Delayed.
Remember that time someone waited a really long time to tell you something was bothering them?
Or when they thought you had done something amazing, and you couldn't even remember what they were talking about?
Remember how well that conversation turned out?
Yeah, me neither.
Being timely is like being concise; there's no clock someone else can give you. You'll learn when the time is right, when you've acted prematurely, or if you've taken too long. If you're lucky, you'll get feedback about it!
Delays in providing feedback are usually about either fear or ego-centrism. Fear because you're afraid of what the other person is going to say, how they're going to react, or that you might be way off-base with your feedback. Ego-centrism because you might believe that this behavior about which you're going to give feedback is so clear and so salient, that of course the other person will remember.
The general rule is that the sooner you can initiate the feedback conversation, the better.
5. Specific vs. Ambiguous.
On the whole, people are not responsible for your feelings. People are responsible for their actions.
So give feedback based on people's actions. You can use your feelings as supportive evidence.
If you want to provide someone feedback that you love how they're always prepared for team meetings and do such a great job staying engaged, that's wonderful, but what did they actually DO? What did you see or hear that you think it would be great for them to continue doing?
Likewise, if you're upset that your peer has been late to turn in his contribution to a project the past three weeks, don't tell him that he's 'unreliable', tell him that he's turned in his contribution to the project late the past three weeks. Unreliable is a judgement based on what you're observing.
We're human, and so many conversations contain emotions and perceptions, but the most productive feedback conversations revolve around observations, and less around the narrative that we tell ourselves about the observations.
Remember those mechanisms that our brains have developed to help us process our world? Sometimes they help us see things that aren't really there. If we can stick to what we saw or heard, then we stay away from judgement and 'facts', and truly embrace a conversation based on mutual understanding and discovery.
Feedback is hard.
Hopefully this makes it a bit easier.