Monday, April 12, 2010

Giving Feedback -The No. 2 People Skill

I recently posted an article about what I believe is the number one people skill:  listening. Possibly the No. 2 people skill is giving feedback. You might say it's the art of pointing out problems in a person's behavior without being critical. Very few people have mastered it.

Not long ago my wife Kathleen and I were in town shopping. We returned to the parking lot and I unlocked my door. On our car, unlocking the driver’s side doesn’t automatically unlock all four doors, so I have to touch the "Unlock" button. I must have been thinking about something else, because I sat down before unlocking the doors. Once we were headed home, Kathleen said, “Honey, you’re very sweet, but sometimes when you don’t unlock the doors right away, I have to stand and wait. I don't know what to do because I don’t know if you forgot or what.”

That was a nice way to put it. In fact, it was classic textbook feedback, focused strictly on my behavior, with a description of how my behavior affects her. She was able to communicate it in a purely factual way—no venting, no criticism, no diatribe. Excellent. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t want to create problems for others, especially for Kathleen. I didn't realize that I was inconveniencing her. It helped to have that mirror held up to me.

My work in various human resources positions, management consulting and feedback technology has kept me focused on the issue of communicating feedback for over 30 years. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about. People aren’t perfect, so they sometimes do things that create problems for others. It's a fairly common occurrence in the workplace and in personal life.

The problem is, we don’t see ourselves as others see us, so we’re not always aware of our impact. You can see how this can cause seriously relationship problems if not handled properly. No one likes criticism, and most people don’t know how to give feedback without being critical. Because it’s so difficult to bring up these issues, most people don’t bother. They just stew. Or blow up.

The solution has been in the public domain for decades, but most people aren’t aware of it. The trick is to give feedback in a factual, non-offensive way, the way Kathleen gave it to me. The first tip is to do it in private. Calm down and get over your irritation first. Assume that the other person has good intentions and will want to deal with the problem. Don't overwhelm; give feedback about only thing at a time. Be brief, but cover these guidelines in roughly this order:

1. Balance your feedback. To avoid making feedback sound like criticism, don’t make it strictly negative. Begin by referring to relevant positive tendencies.

"Most of the time you're good about letting everybody know what you’re doing."

2. Describe the problem behavior. Clearly state what the person did, and only that. No anger, name-calling, insinuations, lectures, questions, etc.

"But this morning you called the client to propose a new solution, and none of us were aware of that, what you said, or what the client agreed to."

3. Let the individual know how the behavior affected you. This helps him understand why he should do something different.

"So we were still cooking away on the old plan, thinking we were on track. That was a big waste of time, because now we’ll have to go back and redo some things."

4. Tell the person what you need.

"It’s not that we don’t trust you. We just need you to keep us in the loop. It would be nice to have a chance to make suggestions, but in any case we need to know what you’ve been up to."

In  the worst-case, you'd just forget about the incident, rationalizing that it probably won’t happen again. But if someone doesn’t know his actions cause problems, he may very well do it again. Repeated offenses have a way of causing hard feelings. If you know your feedback is carefully worded to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, you’ll be a lot more willing to bring it up.

My favorite quote about feedback comes from management author Ken Blanchard: "Feedback is the breakfast of champions."

I didn't say giving effective feedback is easy. But then, doing the right thing often means doing the hard thing. Just remember that it gets easier every time you do it.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .


Gwyn Teatro said...

I think this is a great formula for giving feedback and I also think we have to be careful that it always has the ring of sincerity about it.

Some folks approach the feedback process you describe as an inflexible template and the result is that they feel that they *have* to come up with something positive to start whether they believe it/feel it, or not. This tends to result in the recipient of the feedback waiting for the "BUT" in the conversation and mentally preparing to defend him/herself rather than really listening to the feedback they need to do things differently the next time.

Your wife's approach held all the sincerity you needed to continue to listen and I think that makes all the difference. You are a lucky man :-)

Denny Coates said...

Gwyn, you're absolutely right about sincerity. The basic elements should be there, but what is said has to be honest, natural and - as you say - sincere. Otherwise, the feedback won't have the desired credibility.

Anonymous said...

Good article, its should always begin with encouragement, and then the gentle observation of something that could be improved upon and then ending with encouragement and the character of the person intact,I found this always works thanks again for the great article.

Amber & Cliff said...

It must be a week where we all need a reminder about direct communication. The lead story on my blog covers the same topic - this time involving Paul Simon and a toy helicopter. said...

I think you are covering very sensitive topic,and you are right we must be careful when giving feedback. Thank you for covering this:)

Kent Julian said...

Being a leader who gives effective feedback requires a simple, but often overlooked skill: the realization that we are giving feedback almost all the time, consciously or unconsciously, via our words, actions, and attitudes. Thanks for sharing these solid guidelines, Denny!