5 Steps To Giving Feedback Without Sounding Mean

It can be tricky when offering feedback. Egos can get hurt and relationships can get strained. However, there are ways to offer constructive yet gentle feedback.

Build trust and mutal respect.

If you anticipate that you will be giving feedback to someone on a regular basis, either throughout a project or during a long period of employment, start building trust before you offer critiques. Let the potential recipient know that you appreciate her abilities, respect her knowledge, and value her insights — and be specific about those things that you most admire.

Your goal is to reveal your mindset and priorities so that she can understand your perspective and motivations in providing feedback, which should involve:

  • Showing that you are really paying attention to this person, not just looking at the surface or listening to what every one else is saying;
  • Conveying that you recognize this person’s unique strengths and want to build upon those strengths; and by implication, perceive opportunities for dealing with weaknesses.

This step is intended to be genuine, not manipulative. The appreciation, respect, and value you express should be real.

Be consistently straightforward and supportive.

Try not to be the person who always dodges controversy or sometimes sugarcoats problems.

Drawing on their history with you, those who receive your feedback should expect that you will give objective and constructive comments, every time. Be unequivocally honest. You don’t want people to anticipate wrongly that your feedback will be uniformly positive without regard for the merit of whatever design, presentation, or service for which you are giving feedback.

This consistency helps to assure that those requesting feedback know that they will receive advice, not blind affirmation. As a result, you won’t have to deal with unreasonable expectations or be overly concerned about others’ emotional states.

Ask, “What are you trying to accomplish?”

Discover first what someone hopes to achieve. Then you can provide feedback that improves the potential for success in realizing a well-defined goal. Talk about strengths and shortcomings of a proposal, idea, or project in the context of achieving objectives and reaching target audiences, not in terms of personal preferences. Note which features contribute to accomplishment and which are counterproductive.

By getting an understanding of purpose, your feedback can hone in on specific actions that support goal attainment. Though any criticism may make the person receiving feedback flinch, her longer-term reaction will show you whether she is married to an idea she hatched or truly desires a specific outcome.

Determine specific areas of struggle.

After getting the feedback recipient to define her goal, find out what she perceives to be her obstacles. It’s very likely that she will tell you precisely where she struggles. Your feedback should help her to deal with these specific areas of concern.

Pinpointing problems may provide the clarity that your feedback requestor needs to devise a solution without your input. If your guidance is still needed, narrowly defining an issue can shape dialogue about the usefulness of your recommendations.

Reflecting on my situation, I could have been more specific in my request for feedback. Based on previous conversations plus the questions, my friend could judge where help was most needed: specifically, a format that would make my request for support obvious but also allow me to tell a story to engage my audience, help them to better understand my mission, and get others involved. My friend intuitively saw my struggle. Her feedback involved modifying the letter format and removing some technical details that may have confused readers.

Get feedback on your feedback.

When giving feedback, you should have naturally explained what the feedback — if implemented properly — should accomplish, improve, or fix. Your feedback recipient may have an epiphany based on your conversation, in which case, you may get immediate response on the value of your insights. Or, she may blindly follow your recommendations, unsure about your wisdom but willing to make a change.

Either way, find out whether the project, proposal, letter achieved its desired outcomes, and whether your feedback drove or hindered its success. By learning about results, you can judge the quality of your interactions and the usefulness of your advice. Were goals appropriately defined? Were struggles identified? Knowing what worked well and what didn’t can improve future feedback.

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