How to Give and Receive Effective Feedback

By Lisa Nielsen

The most valuable lesson I learned in grad school was not a theory, problem-solving technique, or research method. It was learning how others perceived me.

For most of my life I’d had a fear of taking up too much space. In the classroom or workplace I was careful not to speak up too often, lest I be perceived as attention-seeking, egocentric, or dominating. My reticence to speak was built on a series of assumptions I thought of as simple truths.

That changed during a class called Group Dynamics, known in some circles as “Touchy-Feely,” in which much of the curriculum involved giving one another feedback and sharing our perceptions. I was shocked to discover that my peers did not find me space-consuming as I feared, but rather too quiet, wishing that I would speak up more often to share my thoughts. They encouraged me to take up even more space in the room. It was life-changing.

Finding my voice in group situations enabled an entirely new career path of consulting, facilitation, and leadership that I was surprised to discover suits me quite well.

It surprised me that rather than going deeper within, under the banner of self-improvement (as I had previously done via introspection, journaling, therapy, meditation, etc.), this catalyzing learning was only possible by perceiving myself through others’ eyes, rather that my own. And it was far more actionable and life-enhancing.

What impact do our words and behaviors actually have on others?

We can guess, but we don’t really know until we ask. The answers are often different than we expect. I thought I was being accommodating, conscientious, and polite, but others saw me as withholding, aloof, and withdrawn. That is quite a delta.

Yet all I had to do to close the gap between intention and impact was to ask. My peers held a wealth of information about me, which, if I asked in the right way, I could unlock.

These deltas of intention and impact happen all the time from interpersonal one-on-one relationships to large-scale brand perceptions. A company may believe it is presenting its product as mature, sleek, and clean, while its consumers actually find it dull and unengaging. This discrepancy is why focus groups and branding firms exist in our marketplace.

Effective customer research, crowd-sourcing, and supply-chain optimization projects decrease the delta between product intention and consumer reception. But who provides this service for the individual?

Obtaining individual feedback is as simple as asking for it, but this does not make it easy.

The word feedback often has a cringe-worthy association as an opportunity for someone to deliver unsolicited criticism or an annual event in which someone rates you against a contrived scoring system to determine your compensation, career trajectory, and ranked placement against your peers.

But real feedback, information carried from an output back to the input, provides a wealth of insight and opportunity to learn.

In my case, I had been told previously that I was intimidating. But no one ever explained to me why that was. I was left to interpret for myself. I made up a story about being “too much.” Not until graduate school did someone explain to me that it was my quietness that was intimidating. My silence made people feel judged. I was intending to be polite and the impact was intimidation. That is a big difference.

Receiving feedback on your actual impact allows you to narrow the delta between intention and impact and increase your effectiveness.

Good feedback has this goal at its heart: success for the recipient.

Good feedback is also actionable. It is not directed at one’s character (e.g. “you are boring, careless, or intimidating.”) Useful feedback identifies the specific, observable behaviors that lead to the character labels. Telling someone they are boring does very little for them except make them defensive and hurt their feelings; they don’t know what about them is boring (the stories they tell? the way they dress? the tone of their voice?).

However, when someone describes a specific behavior (e.g. “when you speak in monologue without pausing, I find myself losing interest”), the recipient has the data needed to change the impact. Graceful feedback empowers the recipient.

Isn’t the opportunity to be more effective a lovely gift we can give each other?

Here at Keen, our coaching team is striving to change perceptions about direct feedback from being a scary, confrontational event to a learning opportunity and expression of caring.

In addition to individual coaching sessions, we provide an Effective Communication Learning Lab to all employees. We teach the principles of non-violent communication and active listening while giving participants opportunities to practice requesting, delivering, and receiving feedback in a conscientious, honest, and caring way.

Narrowing the delta of intention and impact can be broken into three steps:

  1. Acknowledge that the way you intend to be perceived is not necessarily what is happening.
  2. Find a group of people you trust to deliver honest and caring feedback.
  3. Muster the courage to ask and listen.

By seeking and sharing meaningful feedback, you can overcome misconceptions about yourself and others, discover hidden strengths and talents, and build trust with the people close to you. Most importantly, you can close the gap between intention and impact and be perceived the way you truly want to be seen.