How to Get and Give Honest Feedback

by Sarah Winfrey on 15 March 2011 2 comments
Photo: marcello99

Most of us have been in situations where someone needs to give some honest feedback, but no one is willing to say anything critical. We’ve also been the ones in need of receiving those difficult words, even if we didn’t know it because no one came forward to speak. These situations can become more and more awkward the longer they go on, and often the truth is eventually spewed out in frustrated, angry words. (See also: 25 Ways to Say Thanks)

Instead of living in fear of these difficult situations, decide to be honest and authentic, and invite those around you to hold to the same high standards. It might seem impossible to actually get the real feedback you want and to give it to others, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some thoughts as you pursue this goal.

When Receiving Feedback

It can be hard enough to get the real feedback you want, let alone to respond to it well. If it's hard for you to hear difficult things about yourself or you're not sure how to go about getting people to be honest with you in the first place, here are some tips that will help.

DO be up front about the kind of feedback you want.

If you want people to feel free to give you negative feedback, make sure they have explicit permission from you to do so. This won’t guarantee an honest response, but it will create the kind of space where they can be honest if they want to.

DO ask probing questions.

It’s easy to gloss over a critique or a criticism when you’re giving general feedback. Asking specific questions forces a person to lie to you directly if they’re going to avoid the topic, which is harder than simply skimming around it in conversation.

DO make sure you’ve heard the feedback correctly.

Whether positive or negative, you want to make sure you know what the other person is really saying. Say, “So what you want me to understand is...” then fill in the blank with what you heard. This gives them a chance to clarify, and helps you make sure you’re acting on the right information.

DO give yourself some time to take it in.

When honest feedback is difficult to hear, it can be easy to brush it aside or, alternatively, to be crushed by it. Instead, take some time. Evaluate the feedback based on what you know of the situation. Decide if it is valid, partially valid, or not at all valid, and act based on that decision.

DON’T get defensive.

Often the first response to criticism is to lash out at the person who offers it. However, people who’ve been on the receiving end of a lashing-out once aren’t likely to give you honest feedback again. If you want others to know they can tell you the truth, bite back any defensive words and hear the person out.

DON’T let the feedback crush you.

It’s easy to forget that you’re a valuable, lovable person when someone has just told you where you’re not measuring up. No matter what the feedback is, remind yourself that the issue isn’t present in your entire life. If you’re feeling down, take some time away from thinking about the feedback until you can look at it more objectively.

DON’T interrupt.

It’s hard to give honest feedback, and you can honor the courage of the person who is willing to tell you the truth by letting them finish what they have to say. This is also a good way to make sure you’re not defensive, because you can’t defend yourself if you’re not talking.

DON’T treat the person differently after the confrontation.

If someone gives you honest feedback that you decide is valid, it can be easy to avoid them after that. After all, their words can be embarrassing, and often mean you need to make some changes in your life. However, being shunned is no just reward for honesty.

When Giving Feedback

At first glance, it seems easier to give difficult feedback than to receive it. However, figuring out how to make yourself heard without being offensive or driving the other person away can be even harder than hearing tough stuff about yourself. If you want to be honest but keep the relationship intact, make sure you follow these tips.

DO ask what kind of response is requested.

Making this explicit will be in your favor if you say something negative and the other person responds poorly. When you can gently remind them, “But you told me you wanted to know what I really thought,” it can help them reconsider their response.

DO apply the principle of charity before you say anything at all.

The principle of charity means that you choose to interpret someone’s behavior in the best possible light. If there’s any question or ambiguity in the situation at all, give another person the benefit of the doubt.

DO be gentle.

If you have something negative to say, that’s okay. But there’s no need to be hurtful or harsh when you’re saying something that might offend someone else. If you know that particular words or phrases could be especially upsetting, avoid them. Speak quietly, make eye contact, and give the person time to absorb what you’re saying.

DO give alternatives if you can think of them.

Many times, people make the choices they make because they feel like there’s no other option. When you say something negative, then, you’re telling them that their one choice still isn’t good enough. If you can come up with some other options, it will help them hear what you have to say.

DON’T give difficult feedback when you’re upset.

If you’re angry or frustrated with someone, it’s easy to spew out everything you think is wrong with that person. However, the middle of an argument isn’t a time or place where they’re going to be able to hear you. Instead, walk away from the confrontation, figure out what you want to say, and go back and say it when you’re in control of your emotions.

DON’T make it all about you.

When giving criticism, it can be easy to just tell someone what they’re doing that makes your life more difficult. However, making your life difficult isn’t inherently something they should be censured for, and using that as a reason might make them feel angrier than they otherwise would. Instead, find objective reasons to question their behavior, since these are harder for them to get around.

DON’T give only negative feedback.

When your main point for someone is a criticism, it’s easy to say that and be done. However, it’s easier to hear negative feedback when there’s some positive mixed in, too. The more specific the positive feedback, the more genuine it will feel to the person receiving it, and the more open they’ll be to the other things you have to say, too.

DON’T keep pushing.

Your responsibility is to give the feedback, not to make the person change. You cannot force anyone to do anything differently. It’s not your right and it’s not your responsibility. If someone doesn’t listen, you may need to make changes in your own life based on their actions, but pushing them will not help. Give them some time and space, and they may come around.

When you have to give or receive honest feedback, what do you do to make it easier? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Meg Favreau's picture

The note about giving positive feedback as well as negative is so important. Criticism (even when necessary and true) can feel so hurtful. I used to be part of a performance group, and after shows we would give each other "compliment sandwiches" -- a criticism tucked between two compliments. It was a great way to give honest feedback while also reminding people that they did some things very well.

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Cynthia Obrien

Guys should check out this new social network. It's great for getting honest feedback. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTXst44fqJU