How to Decide If and When to Give Feedback

 In Pei Blog

Three crucial questions to ask ourselves before we start giving feedback.

Note: This is Part 2 of a 10-part series on feedback.  I’ve compiled the entire series in a free book you can download here.

In the last post, I wrote about the principle that “we need to ask for feedback more regularly.”  However, asking for feedback and delivering it are two vastly different experiences!  Sometimes we are tempted to jump in and give feedback out of emotion or reaction to something.  If we are to deliver feedback consistently, we need to learn how to do it with thoughtfulness and sensitivity.

In light of that, I’d like to put out Feedback Principle # 2:

We need to discern if and when it’s appropriate to give feedback, before we give it.

For instance, one night my wife was showing me notes for a presentation she was about to give at an event.  I skimmed the notes and immediately said, “This is good, but I think it’s too much content and it gets a bit confusing.  I think you can take a lot of unnecessary stuff out, and rearrange things to be more organized.”

Well, my wife didn’t take my feedback too well and felt pretty deflated.  Sure, I could say “I was only trying to help and had the best intentions.”  I could even blame her for “not being able to take constructive criticism.”

OR, I could eat some humble pie and reflect on what I did that wasn’t helpful, and what I can do better next time!

So let’s break it down into three crucial questions that can spare us some unnecessary pain:

  1. Is it worth it to give feedback? (Rank on a scale from 1 to 10)

Was it worth it to give my wife feedback?  Overall her presentation was very good, and would have gone well.  Sure, there were a few things that could have been better, but that’s the case for most presentations.  Sometimes we have to discern and pick our “battles,” depending on how high the stakes are. 

When we’re considering whether or not to give constructive feedback, one practical idea is to rank the importance on a scale from 1 to 10 in our own minds, and seek to prioritize the items that rank highest in number.  There are some things we really should devote our energy to giving feedback on, like when somebody close to us has hurt us with something they did, and it’s jeopardizing the relationship.  Or if my wife’s presentation was in front of thousands of people and had huge implications for her job status, and her notes were horrific.

Then there are some items that aren’t necessarily worth the feedback, like when I’m looking at a friend’s essay that’s 95% great.  In a situation like that, I’d rather take the time to offer encouragement and blessing to the 95% rather than isolate and criticize the 5%.  Or if my wife has spent all day running errands to help our family and she messes up the last errand by picking up the wrong item for dinner… maybe it’s better to thank her for everything she did, rather than critiquing her for getting one thing wrong.

We need to look at the full picture and prioritize what’s worth speaking into, and what’s not.

  1. Am I the best person to give feedback?

Here’s one eye-opening fact about my wife’s presentation: she didn’t ask me to give her feedback.  It would have been one thing if she had said, “Adrian, I’m working on a presentation and think it could be better.  Could you please take a look and give me some constructive feedback?”  But she didn’t!  She simply showed me her notes, and I took it upon myself to give her feedback!  I assumed I was a good person to give her feedback, and that it was my role to do so.  Maybe all she wanted was to share what she was working on with me, and that’s why she felt so deflated when I turned the experience into a critical workshop.

We need to ask ourselves, why are we the best ones to give feedback?  I’ve seen many evaluations after events, and the people asked to give feedback just don’t have enough context.  They might not be the right people to give feedback.  If we sense that we don’t have the full picture or won’t necessarily have the best judgment, we can always direct people to other sources that will.

Here’s another question I’ve found helpful to consider: Why are we motivated to give feedback about something, or to someone?

Many times I’ve found that we can use the medium of negative feedback to channel our frustrations about other unmet needs or unexpressed emotions.  For instance, we’re so unhappy with our boss that we unload our criticism through the “feedback survey” he or she sends out about a conference.

Before we give feedback, we should ask ourselves if there’s something else we need to express or resolve with the person in question.  If so, it probably calls for a different kind of conversation.  We must be careful not to veil our unresolved concerns or struggles as “giving feedback.”

  1. When is the right time to give feedback?

Maybe I could have given my wife helpful feedback on her presentation, if I had chosen better timing.  Maybe I could have simply acknowledged all the work she had done that evening, which is probably what she really needed, and asked the following day if she needed any further help.  Maybe if I had affirmed her efforts, she would have actually asked me for feedback.  There are a lot of ways to do this!

In closing, the main takeaway is that we should think first, before jumping right into giving feedback.  Yes, we shouldn’t be afraid to deliver regular and consistent feedback, but we must do it with care.  Asking these three simple questions will help us discern if and when feedback is appropriate.

If feedback is appropriate, we then need the courage and skill to move forward and deliver it well.  We’ll cover how to do this in the next post.  Thanks for reading!

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