Feedback is the single most important skill in self development. Feedback is about uncovering the untapped potential inside every person: the parts they don’t know about or are wilfully ignoring.
Many of your faults we can best learn about from an outside perspective. Once they are identified we can work on developing ourselves, increasing our productivity and fulfilling our potential.
Once you get good with feedback you will:
Feedback is about uncovering the untapped potential inside every person: feedback is a short cut to finding out how you can be better or even the best version of you.
We will explore the benefits of being able to ask for, accept and act on feedback that is given to you, as well as explore the best way to provide feedback to other people.
We are going to talk about the challenges we face in asking for feedback and the advantages of being able to ask for and accept feedback well.
You will have an understanding of the importance of being able to ask for, accept and act on feedback and the influence it has on your own success in life.
You will Feel confident that asking for feedback is the best course of action, be ready to move onto the practical aspects of who to ask, what to say and to whom, in order to get the best result.
How do we feel when someone says to us:
Can I give you some feedback?
If you’re like most people, you will get a lurch in your stomach. We generally associate the word ‘feedback’ with negativity, with hearing things we don’t want to hear about ourselves or our performance. If we can change that ‘lurch’ and that perception that feedback is a bad thing, then we can harness its power for positive gain.
But it’s difficult isn’t it? We’re pretty much hard wired to avoid anything unpleasant. The brain doesn’t like things that make us feel uncomfortable, and feedback most often does make us feel uncomfortable, even if we tell ourselves we want it. So, our brain is not our friend in this case.
So, what are some of the other challenges we face in asking for feedback? Well for a start people are reticent in giving honest feedback because:
We’re scared to ask because:
There is a myriad of reasons why people find asking for feedback difficult. And that’s just the first hurdle. But it’s one that’s worth getting over because the benefits of asking for feedback are huge.
I was once driving back to Yorkshire from Wales in the middle of the night, and I was listening to Radio 4. There was an interview with a chap I hadn’t heard of before, Henry Marsh, one of the country's top neurosurgeons. In his book, Do No Harm, he says that we all need good and trusted advisors. Why? because it's easier to see when others get it wrong, but not so easy to see, or be honest about, when we get it wrong ourselves. In other words we need people who we can trust to tell us honestly when and how we could be better.
If he thinks that - as one of the top in his field, then why wouldn't we? We think we can get away with it, after all it’s just in the office. When Henry Marsh gets it wrong, people die, on the operating table, or shortly afterwards, or they have their lives destroyed. As he rather bleakly words it, ‘their hopes vanish’. In the trade of neurosurgery they call it 'wrecking', because one false move with a scalpel, one bleed that isn't stopped early enough, it wrecks someone's life - and we're talking millimetres here.
Luckily for us we do have a bit more leeway, but if we think we aren't enormously influential in how others enjoy their lives, then we need to think again. Feedback gives us the opportunity to find out and do something about it. So if we don't ask for feedback, if we shy away from it, then we just don't know how we are affecting people's lives.
Well you stagnate, you don’t develop to your potential for a start, we cannot make the best of what skills we have if we are not willing to hear how we could be better. Think of professional athletes, they don’t just rely on their own thoughts, they pay people to give them feedback every day, to hear about everything that they need to improve in order to be the best they can possibly be.
But if you don’t ask for feedback you also don’t know about the good things people think of you and your behaviour or performance. People are reticent to praise, and being asked to assess you gives them an opportunity to do so.
You also don’t get the variety of perspectives if you don’t ask a variety of people what they think. You also don’t benefit from shared wisdom, or from the potential short cuts you could use to get where you need to be. You essentially make the same mistakes as all the people who tried to do what you’re trying to do previously, you don’t benefit from their experiences.
You also don’t give people the opportunity to be heard, and that’s important. You can come across as someone who is not interested in improvement, or that you’re resting on your laurels, or arrogantly believing you don’t need to improve. If you don’t ask for feedback then it can be difficult to give feedback as you contribute to a culture of no feedback.
So, on the flip side, the advantages of being able to ask for and accept feedback well are:
Start thinking about how getting some feedback could lead you to be better. What are some areas of your life that you could do with some outside perspective on?
We are going to talk about who, in our lives, are best placed to give us feedback, both at work and at home - and how best to ask people in order to get valid responses.
After reading this you will have the knowledge and techniques required to be able to ask anyone for feedback and get a great response.
You will feel confident in your ability to ask in the right way and to make people feel important by wording it correctly.
You will be keen to get on with asking those around you so you can benefit from their wisdom.
Think of categories rather than individual people, so you might put down parents, friends, boss, write down a few.
You have now identified some people in your life who are best placed to give you feedback. Why did you choose those people? And what are the characteristics they share?
The characteristics people generally share are that they are honest, caring, want the best for us, a good judge of character, non-judgemental, encouraging, humble, open, easy to talk to, know us very well, spend a lot of time with us.
But just think for a moment about some others who we might not have considered? It's easy to choose those who know us very well and those who are in direct contact with us throughout the day. But what about the importance of first impressions?
I seek feedback regularly, and when I last did a 360 on myself I asked a variety of people including people I'd only just met, those who I'd had only one meeting with - it's important. They come back with different things from the others, those who see you every day.
A problem we encounter on our Inspirational Leadership Programme is that sometimes people with very strong personalities come on the programme and they feel that they don't want to lose themselves by changing in line with feedback received. This is especially an issue for those who consider themselves the joker of the group but they might have never considered the impact of their jokes on others. Those for whom banter is a defence mechanism suddenly find it difficult to justify when they become a lot more self aware but they still feel that they should be playing that role because they always have done. Usually those around them are relieved when they stop it, as are they. But seeking the response of someone who doesn't know you in your accepted role is often enlightening.
How about seeking the feedback from someone who doesn't know you as Managing Director, or Finance Director, or even what you do for a job at all? What about a fellow parent at the school or someone who knows you from the pub quiz team?
So, in the next few seconds or so, have a think about some people who you might not have considered up to now.
Feedback that comes out of the blue, unasked for and often delivered without care and consideration for the other’s feelings can wound. This is why we often have a negative reaction when people ask us if we want some feedback. Our brain has remembered that the last time we got feedback it was awful, we felt bad about ourselves for a long time and were full of shame or embarrassment or we lost our self confidence.
But when you control the dialogue, when you request feedback from people you have carefully selected, when you have sought out the feedback and are in a frame of mind that views feedback as helpful advice, then you mitigate the likelihood of the feedback stinging quite so much.
But again, most people end up asking for feedback in a heated emotional state:
so what would you have done differently then, if you know so much?
I know, I know, I was completely useless, I’m rubbish at this kind of thing. Tell me everything I did wrong.
These heightened emotional states make it impossible for the feedback giver to give you proper, well-thought out and honest feedback and extremely difficult for you to take it on board, to accept it and to act on it.
It’s so important that we control the asking, that it’s done in an unemotional way and that it takes account of the situation as a whole. If, for example, you ask your spouse for feedback when the kids are hanging off them, and they’re trying to unload the dishwasher, you’re going to get short shrift. If you ask your boss on a Friday afternoon before they disappear off on a long weekend, you might well not get the most considered feedback either. So, what kinds of things are important to consider when asking for feedback? Take a few seconds and have a think.
Hopefully you have made a note of these things, but just to recap, it’s important to think about the following things, when asking someone for feedback:
It’s best to give people some time to consider their feedback for you, so they get the chance to word it properly, to have a think about what they really think and not just respond with the first thing that comes into their head.
Most importantly though, it’s vital that you ask for feedback from people when they are not feeling cornered or frightened of our response, when we are calm, when they are calm.
So lots of things to think about before we have even formulated the question.
Specific questions work really well. I always ask things like:
These questions bring powerful responses. You have to be prepared to hear those responses and to accept them and act on them. These questions work both in the workplace and in the personal sphere, with family and friends. They don’t pussy foot around, they allow no place for hiding either for the responder or for you.
What I’d like you to do now, as we draw this to a close is a bit of self-reflection - what are some areas of your life and work and relationships that you would like some feedback on? Take a few moments to think. Be specific, in terms of who you will ask and what question.
Accepting feedback is a skill most people won't be able to master in their lives. If you can learn to accept feedback you have a shortcut to being the best you can be in whatever field you like; personal relationships, work, hobbies, sport, absolutely anything.
By the end of this section you will have an awareness of the importance of our own reactions to feedback and how this can often cause problems with accepting feedback. You will feel more in control of your own reactions and you will be able to monitor your reaction and choose a rational response.
Most people cannot accept feedback about themselves calmly and rationally. Why? Because of their lizard brain, that very old part of your brain that fears discomfort like nothing else and that will avoid it at all costs. Your brain does not like feedback because once upon a time it made you feel uncomfortable and your brain has remembered that and deliberately wants you to avoid it. So, when we feel some feedback coming on, or someone asks if you want some feedback an emotion that usually springs up is defensiveness.
Let's talk about defensiveness and about what kinds of reactions we’re talking about here as there are many.
What kinds of phrases or responses are defensive? Take a few seconds and have a think. Hopefully you have come up with a few but here are some that we have come up with. Phrases like:
Or reactions like:
All of these try in some way to deflect the feedback, with disbelief, or by raising some kind of issue with the validity of the statement, or out and out blocking by making it very difficult for the person talking to continue.
Defensiveness is a bad thing, because it prevents us hearing what the person is saying. We are concentrating so hard on making the noise stop, or deflecting, that we are not actually hearing what’s being said. You cannot accept feedback if you are defensive in any way at all. And accepting feedback remember is your shortcut to being the best you.
But we are more likely to be defensive with some people than others. If our boss gives us feedback we tend to accept it more easily than if our spouse gives us it. In a strange paradox, we are most likely to be defensive with those who really have your interests at heart. And it’s generally because we think we can get away with it. But it’s acting against our own best wishes to be like this. If we think about it rationally,
Should I listen to what someone is saying when they are telling me how I could be better?
Then the answer is always yes, but it’s difficult to calm our lizard brain down and make it realise that we are not under attack. We welcome this helpful advice, we want to hear how we can improve.
So how can we ensure our response is rational? What can we do? One of the best ways to ensure you have a rational response to the feedback is to give yourself a little time between reacting and responding. This doesn’t need to be too long. It takes less than a second for your rational brain to kick in after an emotional reaction from your lizard brain, so we just need a delaying tactic to let it catch up.
You could use something like:
Thank you for the feedback, I’ll think about it.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, I’ll have a think about it.
Hmm, let me have a think about that.
You can say all of these and move the conversation on to something else while you ponder and recover, if that’s what it takes, if it’s unsolicited feedback you’re faced with. Or you can ask for more detail, which is almost always what I do.
I didn’t realise I did that. Can you tell me a bit more about what you mean?
I know I do that, can you tell me a bit more about when I do it, if you have noticed anything particular about it.
I didn’t realise I did that. Can you tell me a bit more about what you mean?
Thanks for taking the time to comment, I’ll have a think about it.
None of these responses should be said in a defensive way at all, in a calm and smiling way. You can practise this tone on your own.
What I want you to do now is to take some time and think of some of the things that you do that you now recognise as a defensive response. Be completely honest. The only way to combat defensiveness is by making yourself aware that you do it, that you behave in that way. And then by taking responsibility for that reaction. If you convince yourself you don’t have a defensive reaction to feedback then you’re just burying your head in the sand in a way that’s pointless. Reflect now, be honest, don’t judge yourself, just state the facts:
Sometimes I can be sulky when I get negative feedback.
I often react with a ‘well I do that because you do this’ type of defence. It’s true though.
Well it might be true, but the fact that you do something is still true too. So you can stop doing this. You don’t have to respond in a certain way, you can decide to change your responses and behave in a better way. This is what we’re going to be asking you to do when you act on feedback, so it starts now.
Stop justifying your reactions to feedback and start taking responsibility for them. Be honest with yourself and think of what types of defensive reactions you know you have. Don’t beat yourself up about them, just get them out so you acknowledge them. Do it now.
By the end of this section you will have an awareness about how important it is that you act on the feedback you have received. You will feel empowered to go and ask for feedback, knowing you can accept it and act on it for your own benefit. You will be on your way to being the best you can be.
So why is it important to act on the feedback you have received? It seems obvious but many people don’t do it so this masterclass wouldn’t be complete without talking about it here. At its most basic, the effect of not acting on feedback is that you stagnate, you don’t develop in ways that the feedback suggested. You don’t benefit from the shortcuts and wisdom of others’ experience.
At a slightly more subtle level you are giving the message to the person who gave you the feedback that their feedback wasn’t worth listening to, that the time they spent preparing their advice was time wasted. The result of this is that they probably won’t bother spending the time or effort preparing any feedback or delivering any feedback for you again.
But how can you act on it? Again it’s something that we think is really basic but people don’t do it so we must spell it out.
Ways we can act on feedback are:
What I want you to do now is think back to the ‘asking for feedback’ section and come up with the questions you are going to ask to 4 people that will bring about 4 good feedback conversations.
Enjoy your feedback conversations. Remember that feedback is helpful advice, not a direct attack on you. Treat it as special golden wisdom, whoever it comes from and take it on board.
We’re going to look at how best to praise people and how best to give people feedback. You will learn the skills and techniques to deliver excellent feedback which is received well. You will feel confident in both praising and in delivering constructive feedback and you will be able to identify and comment on strengths and provide tips for improvement for those around you without causing offence to anyone.
So, how do we start?
Well giving feedback is not just about saying what you think to anyone around you. If you do that constantly people will start to ignore you and you won’t have many friends left. People do sometimes need to hear how they could be better but it’s a balance between telling them and not annoying them. After all, we could probably all be better much of the time if we really put our minds to it.
So a well placed bit of feedback is significantly more effective than a lot of feedback - think quality rather than quantity, even if the thing the person does annoys you on a daily basis. The reason most people struggle to accept feedback is that they become defensive. Becoming defensive means we spend more time defending the accusation than listening to it, weighing it up and acknowledging it. Becoming defensive achieves nothing, so, when we want to provide feedback to people, we need to avoid them becoming defensive as much as possible. If we can do that then we have the best chance of them listening to our point, acknowledging it and working to improve themselves in some way.
So when giving the feedback it’s really important to avoid the other person becoming defensive. This means that we have to do a bit of preparation, in the long term and the short term. Our long term preparation should be along the lines of becoming the kind of person that people can trust. If you are calm, you give your opinions in a rational way that doesn’t upset anyone, you don’t break confidences, you are non-judgemental, then people are more likely to trust what you say, as you have never previously behaved in a way that gives anyone cause to suspect that your behaviour is anything less than rational and honest. You have no ulterior motive or agenda, you take things as they are, weigh them up and make a rational decision rather than have an emotional outburst if things don’t seem to be the way we want them to be.
We also need to make sure we are the kind of person who says many positive things about people. That we comment when they have done a great job, preferably in hearing of others as well as privately. That we give people the credit they deserve and praise often but sincerely. This way people don’t associate us with negativity but with positivity too. They come to realise that we are on their side.
The short term preparation you need to do is that you have to think about the message you want to deliver before you deliver it, think about the ways in which it can be hurtful, or affect the person negatively and guard against that, adjusting your words until they become rational and calm rather than emotional in any way.
It’s important we acknowledge how hurtful and threatening feedback can be and that we do what we can to mitigate that. Put yourself in their shoes and remember how it feels. Make sure you don’t give them a negative experience. What you want is for them to understand your feedback as helpful advice rather than as pointing out flaws.
So, how people normally praise is ‘thanks’, ‘great job’. People think that by saying this often that’s enough. But it isn’t. It’s far from enough because it becomes meaningless, especially if it’s used frequently, say always at the end of the day, or the end of a project. It becomes standard and not really respected. You think you’re praising but it’s not being taken as praise by those you wish to acknowledge.
The way to praise is to make it specific. Start by getting the person’s attention, use their name, look them in the eyes and then tell them your piece of praise. Use an example of when they did the behaviour if possible, it makes it more memorable and it shows interest. It also encourages the continuance of the positive behaviour.
John, I just wanted to say how well you handled the call with supplier X this morning. I could tell it was a little confrontational but you kept calm and listened and that really made it clear that we provide excellent customer service. It was really impressive.
Jane, what great job on project X you’ve done. I was looking at it yesterday and I thought I must tell Jane what I’m thinking. It was clear, it was well researched, and it was well written so everyone could see where we should go with it. All that, and on time! Fantastic work.
John and Jane walk away with a bounce in their step, they remember what you said and, guess what, they go away and replicate that behaviour because getting the praise made them feel good. If you say it in public so others can hear, it also makes sure that everyone else knows what the best way to handle a fractious customer or deliver a project is too.
So you need to be regularly delivering praise like this so that you become known as that type of person. People trust more, a person who is prepared to pat others on the back and praises widely.
On the back of this reputation, which you can very quickly establish, even if you haven’t been like this before, you can deliver constructive feedback. The best way to do it is to ensure you phrase it in a way that is received positively as helpful advice. So, ignore the praise sandwich kind of idea. If you praise, then criticise, then praise, people disregard any of the praise you have given and focus only on the negative. Have you ever had a person look at you expectantly when you have given them a compliment, saying ‘I’m just waiting for the ‘but’. That’s the legacy of the praise sandwich. If you say ‘but’ then all that the person hears is the but and what comes after it, literally anything else that you said goes out of the window.
The way to bypass this is to say ‘and’ rather than but as it continues the tone of positivity throughout the statement. So for example:
John you need to be calmer in meetings because it really winds everyone up.
John, I really enjoyed hearing you speak to the customer in a such a calm manner on the phone this morning, really impressive, and if you could keep that cool when you’re dealing with Jane in meetings you’d get a much better result. Give it a go tomorrow, see what happens. Anyway, I’m just going to get a cup of tea, would you like one?
Bob, that presentation was great, you really got everyone’s attention and when you used your hands it looked properly professional. Definitely use your hands when presenting in future, it looked fantatsic.
Same message, delivered in a positive manner, gets a much better result. It sounds like praise but you are still giving constructive criticism. So always take a moment to try and reword what you want to say into a format like that.
As you get better at it you might become even more casual in the delivery of feedback:
John, you’d get better results with Jane being your super cool self, you know, the one you use with customers…tea?
Bob, wow, hands out of pockets - Bob was on fire this morning, great job!
The tone and energy with which you deliver the feedback can dictate how it is taken. You are in control of the message being taken and listened to, or not. You don’t need to get their understanding that the message has been understood, just wait and be patient and see if it has the next time there’s the opportunity for that kind of behaviour. You don’t have to make everything a big deal, a conversation in a meeting room for 5 minutes. This builds it up and makes it emotional. If you can deliver it more casually and then move the conversation on then you will have controlled the effect of the helpful advice.
Warren Buffett said:
Praise individually, criticise generally.
This approach works really well. If you have someone who is consistently late for meetings, then a great way of making sure they get the message is to start the next meeting with something like this:
Thanks all for being here. I’ve been reviewing our effectiveness and I think we spend a lot of time in meetings and waiting for meetings to start etc. So I’d really like it if we can be really mindful of the duration of meetings and if we can all get here on time for any meeting that does take place. Meetings from now on should start on the dot and finish as diarised, even if that means that discussing something gets bumped to a different day. I think it would make us all more effective.
If anyone comes in late then recapping this will be even more effective…
Then if anyone continues being late, a more direct message can be given, such as:
I use reminders on my phone set for 10 mins before a meeting to make sure I leave my desk on time. It’s difficult keeping track of time when you’re in the thick of it, isn’t it…
It doesn’t always have to be a confrontation.
What I would like you to is take the time to practise giving feedback like this. Think of a few examples of your colleagues behaviour, or your partner’s and turn them into positive phrases to bypass a negative reaction.
Make sure you praise specifically and be the kind of person who is trustworthy and then you’ll find it much easier to support people to see their own areas for improvement.