Giving Constructive Feedback
How do you tell another person that they would benefit from changing their behaviour? Giving any kind of feedback – and particularly when it is seen as critical – can be difficult, which is why so many people avoid doing it. Handled badly, a few comments that are meant to be helpful can become destructive.
But even if you don’t deliver your feedback in words, your behaviour will often give the game away (e.g. via a critical look or by avoiding contact). The difficulty then is that the other person knows something is wrong but doesn’t know what it is. Rather than hinting, or hoping the other person picks up on clues, it is better to express your feedback, with a solution-oriented focus. But how do you do that? First, make sure you are prepared.
It is important to be prepared before you begin giving another person feedback. You can do this by asking yourself the following questions.
- Is this the right time and place? Feedback is best delivered out of the range of other people and when the receiver is not under pressure. There may be times when it’s best to leave the conversation for later.
- Will the other person find the feedback useful? If the feedback can’t be used by the other person to improve, why say it? Be careful not to give feedback when its only purpose is to make you feel better or give you a target for your frustration.
- Do you have the right information? If you offer feedback based on incomplete or inaccurate information, it’s unlikely to be effective.
- Does it help the other person see himself or herself more clearly? This is best done through a conversation rather than delivered as a lecture. Start by describing what you’d like to talk about, rather than jumping straight in.
When offering feedback, it is important to ensure that you have a particular focus or that your points are related to a specific goal or purpose (i.e., not just offered as casual remarks). In a review type discussion, feedback should be related to personal or team objectives. For example, you could say:
“John, as you know, the goal this year for our team was to conduct two coaching appointments a month with every key leader, and we all had to do our part to achieve this. In the first six months you have only conducted half of the coaching appointments you agreed to do. Help me to understand what is going on.”
This is factual feedback, related to a specific concern, and helps to focus the shortfall on the wider objective. Describing specific observations helps the other person understand exactly what you mean and accept your comments as “real” or valid. There are two separate but equally critical methods involved here:
- being specific, and
- focusing on direct observations rather than on opinions or rumours.
Very general feedback may be more confusing than helpful. By being specific, you help the other person become aware of what the issue is, and why they need to change or improve. Additionally, it’s important to separate what you have actually observed, from those things that are just your opinions, or from what others have told you. Opinions (especially ones not supported by facts) tend to turn people off or make them defensive; rumours may simply be inaccurate. Starting with facts gives you solid ground to build on.
Once you have said what you need to, allow the person the chance to react to your feedback. This shows that you recognise the value of his or her perspective and also creates an opportunity to check for any misunderstandings or misinterpretations. When you provide an opportunity for responses and reactions, you learn valuable tips on how things are going, gain a broader perspective and foster open communication.
Once you have delivered your feedback message and the person has been given the opportunity to respond, it is time to get them to suggest some solutions rather than just jumping in with your own ideas. Beyond the fact that you want the individual to take responsibility, the best ideas and solutions are often generated by those closest to the problem.
Once the solution is decided, it needs to be broken down into action steps. Sometimes this may involve tasks that need to be allocated to other people. When this happens, you need to make sure the person takes responsibility for communicating those needs and following up. Setting dates for completion against each action step is also important.
Now that you have discussed and selected a solution and worked through an implementation plan, you need to follow this up by asking for the other person’s agreement. Remember that, because of discomfort with receiving feedback, others may be very responsive to everything being said or suggested. This may not be coming from genuine acceptance but rather from their desire to get the ordeal over quickly so they can escape. That is why it is important to seek their explicit agreement rather than assuming it. You need to know that they are committed to taking the action steps you have discussed, by the set date/s.
Colin Noyes is the Director of ResourceZone International. He has thirty-five years of ministry experience as a pastor, college lecturer and consultant/coach to consultants, denominational leaders and local church pastors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Giving Constructive Feedback: Skill Builder Booklet – Ministry Specific Resource (PDF)
- Effective Communication: Coaching Guide with Storyboard – Ministry Specific Resource (PDF)
- Effective Communication Storyboard – Ministry Specific Resource (PDF)
- Communication Effectiveness Profile – Ministry Specific Resource (PDF)