Do you give feedback constructively? Here’s how …

Giving feedback is not always easy – or welcome. It can look like a tricky endeavor that involves many potential traps and could trigger defense, denial, rage or even tears. Yet, as learned from my mentor, the wise consultant and coach Jane Linklater, already years ago, there is a safe technique for both sides – a tried and tested seven-step formula you can follow for success.

First of all, always start with something positive. No, I mean it: Always start with something positive about the person’s actions or behavior – no matter how impatient or worked up you might be in the moment! E.g., say “I really enjoy working with you”, or “Such and such piece of work was really great”.

Second, please don’t follow with a ’but’. The moment you start with ’but’, the other person is on their inner guard – and that’s not what you want, right? You want to keep the feedback doors open, don’t you? So use the trick: Say ’and’. That way, there are no defenses going up. Instead, the doors remain wide open.

Thirdly, use constructive wording, e.g. ’This has been great – and if you could still optimize that other thing …’ Or: ’This has been great – and at the same time, there is one other aspect that I personally find difficult … could we talk about that one?’

Now the most important part starts:
Rather than saying something like: ’Everybody thinks you always are …’, stay away from the three traps that are right in those 5 little words: stay away from
4) characterizing the person (“you are“)
5) generalizing (“you always …”)
6) from giving them the impression that people are talking about them behind their back (“everybody thinks …”, “everybody else says that, too …”)

Instead, please

4) focus on their behavior only
5) quote specific situations
6) that you observed, with the effect that had on you

E.g. ’When you do such and such, like in yesterday’s meeting, I find that difficult, because this is the effect it has on me …’

7) Then, please do not end this before having given the person a clear recommendation of what behavior you would rather see, e.g.: ’I personally would much prefer if you could …’, or ‘I would find it more helpful if you did …’

These seven steps should get you through safely, and hopefully make your feedback ‘land’ more constructively with the recipient.

Now, in case you need to give extended feedback or clarify a whole working relationship, there is also a tool that provides a ‘holding structure’ that can make both attending parties feel safe during a difficult conversation.

Ideally, for that purpose, you don’t have your conversation in the office, but the two of you go somewhere offsite, e.g. to a quiet café. (And put your laptops and mobile phones away and on silent, for full attention to each other. Plan between one and two hours for your session.)

Please note: If one of you has a preference for introversion, it can be advisable to actually book a small meeting room e.g. at a hotel, as they may feel exposed if they have to assume that other people could listen in on your conversation, even if you talk quietly.

The important thing now is to have a mutual feedback conversation.

For that, you can use the four quadrants below:

Screen shot 2014-06-17 at 10.35.44

Once again, please note: If one of you has a preference for introversion, it can be helpful to share the four quadrants sheet prior to meeting up, so each of you can prepare your answers to the four questions. People with a preference for introversion don’t like having to ‘shoot from the hip’ – they prefer to think and reflect for a while before they actually speak out.

Now take turns answering each quadrant – so both of you answer quadrant 1 first, and then move on to quadrant 2. And please stick to the order and stay with it. Don’t jump into quadrant 4 when you’re supposed to talk about quadrant 2 only (please point it out to each other in case one of you does). And please don’t interrupt each other – hear each other out. Then, if you are on the receiving end, maybe ask a couple of questions to clarify, like ’You mean if I do such and such, this is how it lands with you?’ or ’So you mean if I do such and such instead, that would help?’

Sticking to that discipline, you can have really constructive and safe conversations also about difficult topics that may previously have seemed off limits. Many of my clients have made that experience, and they worked more effectively together after their feedback session.

However, if you still find it challenging to have such a conversation, you can ask a qualified facilitator to come in, sit with you two and help you through the conversation. Your HR department should be able to help you with recommending such a person.

In summary, a constructive feedback process can help the two of you towards new soft contracting between you, as a solid foundation for how you want to go on together in your work relationship.

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