How to give and receive feedback

In school, grades are the primary way we judge our progress and if things are on the right track (their effectiveness is the subject of another post). But what happens after we graduate and get a job?

If you wait until a formal performance review to understand how things are going, you miss a critical opportunity to speed up your learning by collecting informal feedback.

From this perspective, learning how to give and receive feedback is one of the most important real-world skills, yet most schools and workplaces offer little to no training on the topic.

I wanted to share some things I’ve learned about feedback from working in cross-functional roles at big, mature companies and smaller high-growth ones. You can start experimenting with many of these tactics right away—I’d love to hear if they resonate with you.

Receiving feedback

1/ Ask for it!
If you only remember one thing from this post, this is it: You won’t get what you don’t ask for. Feedback conversations can be awkward and for the most part, people won’t be jumping up and down to share their honest thoughts with you. The best way to get around this is by explicitly asking for and reminding people that you welcome their feedback.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when making the actual ask…

1a/ Have the right intentions
Be honest with yourself about your motivations for requesting feedback and your readiness to hear candid comments. Maybe you want to improve a key working relationship or figure out how to set yourself up for a promotion. Bottom line: It should be in the spirit of self-improvement. People will see through attempts to get validation or requests for feedback just for the sake of appearances, and be less likely to take you up on your offer.

1b/ Make it as easy as possible for the other person to give you feedback
Remember that you’re asking people for a favor and to take time out of busy schedules to think about you. Avoid generic requests like “Hey, could you give me some feedback on how I’m doing?” This puts all the burden on the other person to figure out where to start and what to focus on.

Instead, tailor your request to a specific area: “I’m working on my public speaking skills. Could you watch for filler words and eye contact when I give my presentation on Wednesday?”

If it’s a more general check-in, provide structure to guide the conversation. It can be as simple as:

  • What’s going well
  • What can be improved

2/ Listen
Once you’ve convinced someone to give you feedback, ensure that it won’t just be a one-off thing by making it worth their time. Have the conversation in a quiet, distraction-free place. Give the person your undivided attention, take notes if you need to, and don’t interrupt. Ask follow-up questions if anything is unclear or you sense something has been left unsaid.

3/ Express appreciation
The first thing you should do after someone has offered their thoughts is thank them for taking the time to give you feedback. As anyone who’s done this before can tell you, it takes courage to be candid and thoughtfulness to do it well.

Try not to get defensive about the constructive parts and don’t feel pressure to address all (or any) of the points right then and there. It’s totally reasonable to say, “These are good callouts. Let me take some time to reflect on them and get back to you.”

When someone gives you a compliment, don’t brush it off in an attempt to act modest. That devalues both you and the effort that went into delivering the compliment. A simple “Thank you, I really appreciate that,” works great.

Giving feedback

1/ Most of your feedback should focus on the positive stuff
There’s been a lot of research on the optimal ratio of positive to negative feedback, but this sums it up nicely:

positive feedback tweet

2/ Constructive feedback should be timely
The longer you wait to deliver feedback, the harder it is to establish shared context and get your message across clearly. I remember being in a meeting where a coworker was giving a presentation to people on our team and cross-functional leaders. I noticed she was only making eye contact with the former and mentioned this to her right after the meeting ended. This kind of small but significant observation would have been hard to communicate and less impactful even a couple of hours after the fact.

3/ Constructive feedback should be specific
The more specific your feedback, the more receptive the other person will be to your message, and the more productive the conversation. If you feel like you’re being micromanaged, instead of saying “I don’t think you trust my work”, point to a project where you didn’t have enough decision-making autonomy, or a time when something could have been delegated but wasn’t.

4/ Constructive feedback should be actionable
This ties closely to the previous point; in general the more specific your feedback, the more actionable it is as well. Are there clear next steps the person can take to address the feedback? The goal here is to separate the behavior change from the person. Try to focus your language on verbs vs. adjectives and personality traits.

For example, instead of “You seem too quiet for this leadership role”, break down the expectations for that position and where the gaps are:

  • You need to be able to wrangle cross-functional consensus and push back where appropriate. There was a missed opportunity to do this when…
  • You need to be able to inspire confidence within your team. Let’s brainstorm ways you can practice this…
  • etc.

It’s rare that any of this stuff is second nature, but it does get easier with practice. Let me know if you find these tips helpful and if there’s anything I forgot to mention; I’d love to hear from you.

How to disagree constructively

I’ve been in my fair share of meetings and have noticed that the best collaborators and leaders do one thing especially well: they know how to disagree constructively. That is, they can express a conflicting point of view in a way that moves the conversation forward and keeps the focus on the ideas instead of the people.

This skill also happens to be one that less effective communicators stumble over frequently, either by failing to voice their opinions assertively enough or bruising egos and their reputation along the way.

Liane Davey recently wrote an article in HBR with actionable advice for improving how you communicate a differing perspective. The key recommendations are:

1. Use “and” instead of “but.” It’s not necessary for others to be wrong for you to be right. Rather than try to override someone else’s idea, just add your reality. For example, “You think we should do X and I’m proposing Y. What are our options?” This engages your teammates in problem solving instead of competition.

2. Use hypotheticals to get people imagining a different scenario. This is especially effective if people don’t seem receptive to your ideas. For instance, “I hear your concern about XYZ. If we could address it, what could the campaign look like?”

3. Focus on the underlying goal. When you disagree with an idea, start by trying to understand what’s behind the suggestion. For example, “I’m surprised you suggested XYZ. What’s your aim in doing that?” Many conflicts arise over approach as opposed to the end goal. If you can agree that the problem you’re both trying to solve is the right one to prioritize, that’s common ground to start looking for a solution.

4. Ask about the impact. If you have concerns about a plan of action, ask people to think through the impact of implementing it. For instance, “How will this launch affect XYZ?” The key here is showing that you’re genuinely open to ideas and curious about the right approach.

5. Ask for help. If something really catches you off guard, be a bit self-deprecating. For example, “I think I’m missing something here. How will this help us with XYZ?” Be careful that your questioning doesn’t come off as insincere or leading. As with #3, people can quickly sense whether you’re making a real effort to understand someone’s reasoning.

But seriously, call me sometime

One of the hardest things about transitioning from Penn to “the real world” has been ensuring the friendships that sprang to life on campus don’t wilt in the concrete expanse of New York City.

Thankfully, technology has made it a real undertaking to fall completely out of touch.

Five minutes and a few clicks of the mouse was all it took to learn that a friend was road-tripping to Savannah for the weekend, another was in the midst of a Law and Order marathon, a third needed help moving a sofa she had bought off Craigslist, a fourth had also thumbs-uped “Hard to Explain” by The Strokes on Pandora, a fifth had checked into Wattay International Airport, and a sixth had just snapped a lovely picture from a sunset run along the Hudson.

Social scientists have a name for the collective impact of this omnipresent stream of updates: “ambient awareness.” Much like the way you can gauge the mood of someone standing next to you through small cues like throat clearing or feet tapping, all of these virtual data points coalesce to give a surprisingly holistic view of a person’s day-to-day life.

In making it possible for people to stay in the loop without having to check in on a constant basis, ambient information is a huge improvement from being in the dark. But it also makes it easier to substitute away from more meaningful interactions. Rather than picking up the phone to give someone a call, we make do with a wall post or a quick email.

Information overload can also lead to inertia. You’re about to dial a friend’s number, but then you see their Gchat status go from green to “Busy.” Now what? It kind of makes you nostalgic for the days when people would spontaneously call each other with no expectation of what would happen on the other end. So much faith!

The next time you find yourself perusing a friend’s profile, call or video chat the person instead. Even if you are interrupting, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the reaction will be, “It’s so nice to hear a familiar voice checking in.”