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Feedback is an essential part of learning almost anything, isn’t it? How would we know if we’re on the right track if we didn’t get a signal of some sort?
Those hints about the direction we’re going might come from the environment. Touch a hot stove once and you probably learn not to do that again.
Often our peers tell us how we’re doing. A teammate might pat us on the back and say, “Good work.” Or they might give us a look that lets us know we’ve missed the mark.
And we get a lot of feedback from professionals. When we’re young, teachers grade our papers and coaches tell us how to improve our game. As working adults, we hear from managers and mentors, not to mention our clients or customers. They let us know how much they appreciate our work … or they tell us where we’ve fallen short and what we can do about it.
Sometimes the shoe is on the other foot.
What if we’re the ones inclined to offer feedback?
Naturally, our intentions are good. We sincerely want to help a colleague or partner, and they clearly need the direction we could give them so they can perform better.
We know our suggestion is on target. After all, we’re experts on the subject. We have information and experience and wisdom to share. And opinions. We have opinions too.
The person will clearly be better off for having heard from us and made the changes we’re suggesting. Their performance will improve, and they’ll be rewarded in who-knows-how-many ways.
A note of caution is in order when you’re thinking about telling someone how they did and how they could do better.
A few Q’s for you.
As you consider how receptive they’re likely to be to your analysis, there are several things to keep in mind.
Start with their state.
Did they just lose a key client? Are they breaking all the sales records this quarter? Are they in the running for a big promotion, and doing everything they can possibly do to prepare for it?
If they’re feeling fine, confident, and eager to learn, your assessment of their work will likely be welcome.
If they’re flustered, upset, or angry you might choose another time to tell them how you think they could do better.
You can make the case for fast feedback to prevent physical injury or a career-limiting move. Usually, though, it’s best to allow someone to calm down before we start assessing their performance and their prospects and telling them how to improve both.
What’s going on around you?
Are you in an office or on the phone, just the two of you? If you’re about to deliver a critique of their performance, effort, or attitude, you’re better off to do it in a private conversation.
Nobody likes to hear about how they screwed up with a bunch of other people hearing it at the same time. It’s embarrassing. Public criticism can cause defensiveness that makes them shut down and miss the value of your considered opinion.
On the other hand, when you give somebody a gold star, praising them in front of others can make it even more meaningful. If you have something positive to say, don’t hold back because there’s someone else in the room.
Is it your business?
You know I coach speakers, professional and otherwise, about how to up their game. I’ve been doing this work for a long time and my clients would tell you I’m quite good at it.
It occurs to me often as I’m watching politicians on TV, sitting at a business conference, or listening to professionals introduce themselves at a networking group. “Hey, I could offer that person a suggestion or two that would really polish their delivery.”
It’s none of my business whether that congressman connects with his audience or that tech expert shines in her presentation or that dentist delivers a stellar elevator speech.
It’s worth checking, when you’re tempted to share your opinion, whether you’re about to be minding somebody else’s business.
Did they tug on your sleeve?
I was in a coaching program long ago, about discovering our Life Purpose. The thing we’re so naturally good at that we may not even know we’re doing it. The thing people count on us to provide. The gift we bring to the world.
One thing I learned for sure. It’s not a gift if they don’t want it.
So, the suggestion was: Wait until someone tugs on your sleeve and lets you know they do want your teaching, or nurturing, or organizing. Whatever you do for the people in your life, make sure they’re asking for it before you start Purpose-ing all over them.
That does double for feedback.
You may have guessed; I write from experience.
I got a boatload of feedback the other day and it didn’t feel good. I was already under stress, which made it hard to hear. Other people were listening, which made it embarrassing. And I had not tugged on that guy’s sleeve.
Noticing how I felt when the meeting was over, I got to thinking about times I’ve made somebody else feel the same way.
I’m pretty careful about this sort of thing but I’ve definitely blundered into offering an opinion that wasn’t well-timed or artful … or welcome.
If you want to be better at sharing your assessment when the time is right, I have some specific suggestions for giving meaningful feedback.
And I’m curious about your experience giving—and getting—feedback. Fill me in with a comment below.
I once made a clerical error at a part-time job. The error was caught in time, the customer never saw it, and the company lost no money. But the guy who caught the error went around showing it to other people, “Look what Barbara did.” After telling me privately, he could have said something like “Make sure you all double check the dates on the orders” and not shamed me publicly. That was by far not the worst thing about that job, five months out of my life I’ll never get back.
Some people seem to have a need to show off their being right by highlighting someone else being wrong, Barbara. In my experience it often comes back to bite them in the end — makes them seem small and not a team player. Good for you, moving on to a better situation.
So very true and well-timed for me. Thank you as always for your wisdom, Catherine. In the coaching world, we ask, “Permission to coach?” Yes, even when they’re paying us. Because there has to be a request, as you so eloquently say here. If someone is not a request for coaching, zip it. That really is hard for some people, and it comes from a desire to help. But it’s like permission marketing–you have to have someone sign up first.
We can’t wait to Zee you at the June meeting of the Wheaton Chamber’s Women in Business!
It is hard to hold back sometimes, Vickie. Maybe because of a petty desire to hurt someone; more likely because of a genuine belief they need to hear what we’re so eager to say. I do some coaching in groups, and I’ve learned from experience that some people don’t want my feedback. It’s important for me not just to accept that, but to honor it.
And yes, I’m looking forward to coaching your members about how they put their message out into the world to connect with the people who need them.
I enjoyed reading this article, Catherine. As a VERY happily retired educator, my dilemma is whether or not to comment on written grammatical errors. It’s a blessing and a curse to notice errors almost unconsciously. I don’t look for them; they’re like neon signs to my brain. My thought is always about the reader’s impression of the writing. If it’s a business (particularly one with which I have a connection,) I wouldn’t want their message to be misinterpreted or chase away possible business. If it’s an acquaintance, I try to control my impulsivity in automatically commenting or revising the writing to correct or enhance the message. I continue to work on offering feedback only when asked, rather than sharing my thoughts uninvited. It’s a struggle for me, and as you said, I only mean well.
This is a great example, Ellen. My guess is most people don’t welcome commentary on their spelling, grammar, or keyboarding ability. I’ve messaged a good friend about a good in her LinkedIn post that really changed her meaning. And yes, she seemed to welcome the chance to put it right. Mostly though, I don’t offer feedback like that unless I’m invited to. (It is hard to hold back sometimes, isn’t it?)