George Bernard Shaw, early twentieth century dramatist and political activist, once said that “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
And when the communication includes feedback, the odds narrow on it ending up the illusory kind. At best a pleasant distraction, at worst scary and confusing. Either way inconsequential.
So what can we do to make sure a feedback conversation is meaningful and positive?
How to Have A Meaningful Feedback Conversation
1. Frame it up
More often than not, it’s in the first thirty seconds that things go wrong. Setting parameters for a feedback conversation is crucial, because if we don’t define the context, the other person is getting busy creating their own.
Typically, those who prefer the direct route, for whom beating around the bush is a felony, those who don’t even bother calling a spade a spade when it should be obvious to everyone the thing’s a bloody spade, might get stuck straight into the feedback’s nitty gritty, because any preamble is a waste of time and breath, and an intelligence insult.
“Let’s get straight to it, Sandy, what I saw from you in the meeting was…”. Meanwhile Sandy’s getting her guard up, or already reeling, instead of tuning in.
Or there’s the other extreme — the feed-backer who buries their observations in so many pleasantries and deviations that the constructive points, when they do emerge, feel like an ambush or an aside. There’s nothing wrong with spelling out what’s about to happen, or weak about asking for consent:
“I’d like to share some feedback with you on what I saw in the meeting. Then I’d really like to hear your take, so that we have an understanding of what worked really well and what might be one or two areas for development. Does that sound okay?”
2. Mind the non-verbals
An effective feedback and coaching conversation can cross unpredictable and tricky terrain. That’s why solid structures like SBI (Situation – Behaviour – Action) and GROW (Goals, Reality, Options, Will Do) are such useful aids to steering us through. But following a roadmap, however reliable — keeping our observations objective and specific and our questions open — this alone won’t ensure steady navigation.
Models like SBI and GROW focus our attention on what we say. We need to pay just as much attention to how we say it. The models are powerful platforms for open and impartial communication, so without crossing the line into self-conscious robo-mode, we need to look and sound (as well as be) open and impartial when using them. Or else it’s little wonder that messages get mixed.
Unfold the arms, use open gestures, speak slowly and clearly and hold eye contact, gently. And if something you hear or pick up on starts to push your buttons, pause and breathe. Let the tension drop from your body. We don’t want it restricting your breath, finding its way to your jaw. The friendliest of comments sounds like a threat when delivered through gritted teeth.
3. Keep it real, keep it regular
They say a healthy feedback environment at work is one that tells us three things we do well for every one we might change. Three pieces of positive feedback for every bit of constructive. (At home the ratio shifts to 5:1, but now we’re heading into fantasyland).
In every feedback conversation we have, it’s important to open with what’s working. Not just lip service to general attributes, but specific examples, behaviors that can be repeated and built on. Of course, the danger of opening with the good news is that it might feel strategic, calculated, a thoughtful cushion to tenderize the hard message to come, the fluffy white slice for the proverbial **** sandwich.
Here’s the thing. If the culture at work is one in which feedback conversations, from quick-fire to deep-dive, are happening all the time, and a healthy balance between messages of positive reinforcement and potential development areas being maintained, it won’t feel clunky, but natural.
And if that culture is one where every feedback conversation aims for a high quality connection — with attention fully on the conversation, phones put away (and if it HAS to be snatched in the corridor, it’s stop and listen, not walk and talk), where listening is active, the mind is present, where there’s mutual will and positive regard — if all of this is in place, we can communicate in a way which, far from Shaw’s “illusion”, is authentic, confident and clear.
And give and receive feedback that illuminates, resonates and transforms.
To recap, in order to make sure feedback conversations are meaningful and positive, you should do 3 things: frame up the conversation, mind the non-verbals, and keep it real and regular. If you need help with generating positive feedback conversations, Peers and Players Critical Conversations training can help.