Four questions to make your feedback as effective as possible
Feedback can be very valuable. Feedback, information about the effects of our behavior, can help us get better at what we do. By definition, we ourselves only have a limited insight into the effects of our actions. Other people look at what we do from a different perspective and can therefore see different things. Moreover, they may have more or different knowledge and skills, so that their feedback can be extra educational for us. Whether these positive effects of feedback are realized depends on what the feedback is about and how effectively the feedback is delivered. Here are some questions to make your feedback as effective as possible.
- Is your feedback appropriate at all?
- Is your feedback informative?
- Is your feedback useful?
- Is your feedback interactive?
1. Is your feedback appropriate at all?
When you feel the urge to give someone feedback, ask yourself whether feedback is the most appropriate approach to what you want to achieve. Two things are important here. First, feedback works best when there is a good basis of trust between the giver and receiver of feedback. If the relationship is strong between the two, the receptivity to feedback is generally better than if there is no strong relationship. If a good relationship of trust exists, the feedback is more likely to be interpreted as well-intentioned.
Second, feedback is appropriate when giving feedback fits the role relationship between giver and receiver. For example, it suits the role of parent, teacher or manager to provide feedback from time to time on the behavior of children, students or employees respectively.
When both of these conditions are not met, feedback may not be the most appropriate way to communicate. In this case, making a request may be more appropriate. Making a request is less likely to evoke defensiveness because it is less likely to come across as intrusive. In the other person's perception, the request is more about you than about them. As a result, they may feel less like they have to defend something.
2. Is your feedback informative?
How the intention behind your feedback is perceived has a strong influence on how the other person will respond to it. When you give feedback in a judgmental way or a persuasive tone, it is likely to undermine the motivation of the other person to do something with it. Therefore, it is wise to be careful with the use of phrases such as: "you must", "I expect from you ..." and with value judgments such as: "you are doing it wrong", "you do not understand...", etc.
When your feedback functional, it is more likely to be interpreted as informative and less likely to evoke resistance. An example of an informative feedback formulation is: "If you do ..., you will probably be able to ..."
3. Is your feedback useful?
Whether your feedback is useful depends on at least four things. First, the perceived usefulness depends on whether your feedback ties in with something important to the recipient of the feedback. If not, chances are the person will view the feedback as not very useful.
Second, the perceived usefulness depends on whether your feedback is positively phrased. When feedback is worded purely negatively, the person probably knows what you want him to stop doing but may not know what you want him to do instead. Positively formulated feedback is more readily understood and moreover less likely to evoke defensiveness. A phrase like: "You keep interrupting me!" probably works less well than: "Could you please wait a moment with your response because I would like to add something to what I just said?"
Third, the perceived usefulness depends on how concrete your feedback is. In general, abstract and person-oriented feedback will be less readily understood than concrete and behavioral feedback. A comment such as: "I think your attitude is rather reserved" will be less likely to be perceived as useful than a comment such as: "I especially thought that first argument you gave was strong." Results-oriented feedback can also be useful because it can contain valuable information to the person about how well he or she has met specific expectations. Results-oriented feedback works especially well when it is combined with feedback on effective behavior and less well when it is combined with person-oriented feedback. The latter may evoke a fixed mindset in the recipient with all its negative consequences, such as avoiding challenges.
Fourth, the perceived usefulness depends on whether the feedback matches the recipient's feedback expectation. In this regard, you can apply the following rule of thumb. Less experienced and skilled people in a particular activity often seek feedback that motivates them to reinforce their commitment to the goal. The type of feedback that mainly accomplishes this is feedback about what they are already doing well. More experienced and skilled people often seek feedback that will help them move forward. The type of feedback that does this especially well is feedback about what they could do even better. Beginners thus often benefit more from positive feedback, more experienced and competent people often benefit more from negative feedback and suggestions for improvement.
4. Is your feedback interactive?
Feedback works especially well when the recipient of the feedback is given an opportunity to say something back and feels that they are being taken seriously. An interesting method for making feedback interactive is the so-called feedback ladder (Perkins, 2002). This works as follows:
- Introduce the topic in a positive way
- Seek clarification: Ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand the idea or behavior correctly. Avoid questions that suggest criticism.
- Express appreciation - Specify specifically what appeals to you in the idea or behavior. Avoid going through with the negatives all at once.
- Express Concerns - State what does not appeal to you or what you are concerned about. Avoid talking in absolute and accusatory terms. Make it clear that what you are saying is subjective.
- Express suggestions / expectations - Provide concrete suggestions or expectations. Be clear and constructive.