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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.”

I don’t.

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.