June 9, 2020  |  David R. Novak

The Nature of Feedback

The Nature of Feedback

Giving feedback is communication we think of as communication. That is, while every conversation is communication, giving someone feedback — it could be on anything: something at work, advice about life, or just a normal part of everyday interaction (“Hey, what did you think of my chili?” or “Did I do a good enough job getting this stain out?”) — feels special, punctuated. When we’re giving feedback, we are quite aware that we’re communicating.

Feedback is a smaller, yet essential and natural part of the larger communication whole. It takes many forms.

We’re constantly giving and getting feedback when we communicate, even though we might think of feedback as a formal process such as a boss giving an employee feedback at work. There’s feedback all around us. Big, small, at work, interpersonally, in public, in private — feedback is everywhere. Feedback isn’t confined to annual reviews or conversations about relationships or reactions that the chili is too spicy. It permeates our interactions.

People think of communication in terms of “senders” and “receivers,” giving feedback or getting it, but this model gets us almost nowhere. When we’re communicating, we’re constantly sending and receiving, giving feedback and adapting, as we bob and weave through communication along with our relational compatriots. This flow of communication is so constant that distinctions afforded by sender-receiver models are quite meaningless.

People crave feedback. It is super useful. It allows you to adapt your message in real-time, gain valuable input to improve, find places where problems exist, and figure out solutions that move relationships, projects, and ideas forward. If we are open to the process of feedback, then we’re able to incorporate useful thoughts into our own behaviors and improve accordingly. Good feedback is beneficial all around.
Feedback is an opportunity — to get, gain, or give insights. For a relationship to succeed, it’s essential that people be able to acknowledge where the relationship stands, converse about its status, and discuss how to interact in a positive, functioning way. This is the case regardless of the type of relationship.

Giving feedback can be intense. It can require deft navigation of relationship landmines, both real and anticipated. It’s a time when we sometimes feel more aware of our words because we’re trying to connect, navigate, and get somewhere new.

So, what kind of mindset sets you up best for success?

Going In With a Plan Is Nice But Not Always Possible

If possible, having a plan when you need to give feedback is good, especially when it’s something big or important: work performance, a relationship, how you feel about their new haircut, or what you thought about dinner. Feedback on the fly is challenging. You’re likely to make mistakes, slip up, or look silly. Try, if you can, to prepare ahead of time.

Unfortunately, a lot of communication is spontaneous, so it’s not always possible to plan out what you’re going to say to someone. You never quite know when someone is going to want you to comment on something or ask your opinion. As an unplannable natural part of the ebb and flow of communication, feedback can feel beyond control.

Indeed, there are aspects of communication beyond your control. This is why it’s more of a question of how you orient yourself toward feedback rather than having a step-by-step plan from which you should not stray.

What to Keep In Mind When Giving Feedback

As it always goes with communication, context must be kept in mind. Context drives appropriate/acceptable behavior.

    •    What’s the situation?

    •    Where are you communicating? At work? Publicly with other people around? Or in private?

    •    With who? Who is involved? In a personal relationship? Among friends? With a co-worker?

    •    What power dynamics are at play?

All of these will factor into your approach to giving feedback, regarding what you share (or not) and how you share it (if you do).

Feedback is an opportunity to build a foundation for success in a relationship. Reinforcement through complimenting positive behavior is nearly always a good idea. Telling someone, “Hey, I liked when you did that.” almost never goes wrong. In fact, simple reinforcement such as that makes it easier for your relationship partner to do more pleasing things in the relationship (assuming that to please you is their motivation, of course).

Simple things go a long way.Small, authentic positive comments about someone can get you really far. For example, one thing I personally really appreciate is someone who can ask a good question. I like good questions so much that I often compliment (or give feedback) people who ask a really helpful, thought-provoking question. “That question really makes me think about things more clearly. Thanks.” It can be that simple. Feedback doesn’t have to be long and drawn out. It can be quick and small. People usually feel complimented, and at worst, you’re met with indifference and the conversation moves on. Such behavior is essentially a can’t lose strategy.

When giving feedback, keep the other person’s safety in mind. People are more receptive to feedback if they feel safe — and far more defensive about feedback when they do not. Increased feelings of safety lead to better quality feedback. Not everyone feels safe or willing or comfortable to share their vulnerabilities.

People with power can’t be disingenuously naïve and need to listen. Sometimes, feedback isn’t even appropriate.

The ultimate rule for feedback, to me, is that, if you try to be genuinely helpful toward the other person and aim to improve their situation, the rest falls into place behind. Sometimes improving someone’s situation means keeping your feedback to yourself. If feedback starts from a place of desired improvement as well as radical concern for the other, communicative success is all but guaranteed.

Feedback has a lot of practical usages in communication: you can use feedback to check for understanding — where your meaning and their understanding (or vice versa) — overlap. You can also check for places where there might be disagreement.

Speak from a standpoint of imagining what’s possible. This is how we can help others and be open ourselves.

Focus on behavior, not the person. Talk about what someone does, not what they are. Beware of feedback overload. Too much feedback means confusion and being overwhelmed may reign. A good rule remains that if you can’t be constructive, it’s best not to say much of anything at all.

Skills | Good Communication | Improving Communication