Four Cornerstones of Effective Feedback

Giving and receiving feedback is part of our daily lives. In conversations, meetings at work, scrolls through social media or furtive glances in the mirror or at the weighing scales, we confirm our opinions of others or allow those of others (or our own negative thoughts) to reaffirm what we think about ourselves.

I wish to outline some simple yet profound principles that will help transform your approach to feedback within your professional and personal lives.

The acronym I like to use for effective feedback is FAST:

  • From the heart
  • Actionable
  • Specific
  • Timely

I refer to these as the ‘four cornerstones of effective feedback’ because if one is missing, the feedback falls down and loses all impact.

  1. From the Heart

Nobody will give a second thought to any recommendation unless they feel the one delivering it cares about them. Empathy is at the root of all meaningful human communication; as soon as we show a genuine interest in the welfare of another person and are motivated by a desire to see them succeed, we open the door to another person’s life.

When I have been sitting across a table from someone delivering feedback and felt a genuine care and concern on their part, their feedback is powerful, even life-changing. The exchange has always begun with questions regarding wellbeing, then feedback has been tactfully adapted to what I might have been able to absorb based on current skill, experience and emotional levels.

The first – and, I believe, most important – question to ask yourself when giving feedback is this: “Is care being shown?” Ask yourself, “Do I really care about this individual as an individual – their progression, welfare, hopes and aspirations? If this question cannot be answered with an honest ‘yes’, it is the wrong time – or you are the wrong person – to deliver feedback.

If you are receiving feedback, you must immediately ask yourself that same question: “Is care being shown?”. If the answer feels like a ‘no’, then that feedback should be taken with a pinch (or more!) of salt. If there are valid statements or recommendations, then take them on board. However, any statements that are overly critical or appear insincere should not be taken personally; the damage of allowing negative feedback to fester can be irreparable.

Remember the deliverer is also a person. Be kind. Don’t be confrontational. Do you don’t have to agree with everything. Take something that you can act on and politely discard anything that is unhelpful. Do not let one ill-worded comment rob you of your mental and emotional wellbeing. It is just not worth it.

Seeking out positive, helpful feedback designed to build character and shunning negative feedback is not weakness. It sometimes takes great strength and resilience to become selective about whose feedback you listen to. Even if the circle of people starts off small, carefully choose whose guidance you will follow. Ensure you are only receptive to people who are seeking to build you up; refuse mental and emotional entry to those seeking to sabotage your foundations.

  1. Actionable

We all arrive at a point where we our own skills, knowledge and experience have been exhausted. At this moment, we silently cry out for someone wiser, more experienced and more skilful to step in and say: “I can see you’re struggling with this. You’ve done brilliantly to get this far. When I was in this position, here is what I learned … I suggest you try the following…”.

In my work as a teacher, my feedback to students is broken into three distinct parts. First, I always offer praise on something they’re doing well. This brings a feeling of pride to the individual and opens them up to receive any subsequent advice. Secondly, I suggest an area of focus, something they need to do to move the work forward. For example: “Congratulations on using some excellent descriptive language in this piece of writing. To move forward, we need to make sure your use of punctuation becomes more controlled and secure”. Good feedback, right? No! It is not actionable. It is missing the third – and most vital – element.

The third part of the feedback is the challenge. This is the invitation to act, to implement, to practise. After offering the above feedback to a student, my challenge might be as follows: “Add a further paragraph to your story. Highlight all of the commas and full stops you are using to show that you are remembering to include them in your sentences.” That’s much more like it! That will drive forward the progress of the student’s writing and hold them accountable for implementing the feedback given.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all feedback given was broken into those three elements: praise, recommendation and challenge? That sort of feedback meets the first and second corner stones. It comes from the heart, shows genuine care and can be acted upon. Too much of the feedback passed between colleagues, families and partners lacks one of these two cornerstones: either it lacks empathy or it can’t be implemented. Only with both parts fulfilled can feedback spark meaningful change.

  1. Specific

Feedback that lacks specificity also lacks power. If the individual giving the feedback is not specific, they undermine their own credibility and professed expertise, robbing the recipient of an opportunity to grow. Generalised feedback shows a lack of due care, preparation and is not actionable, so fails to meet all three cornerstones.

Many people talk about the ‘praise sandwich’. You offer praise, give suggested improvements and end with more praise. As mentioned, when I offer feedback to students, I do so in three parts: praise, recommendation and challenge. Whilst the ‘praise sandwich’ structure might boost the confidence of someone in the earliest stages of development, it eventually becomes a disservice as it gives a false impression of progress and can erode trust.

As long as feedback is delivered empathically and with a clear path to progress, there is no rule for the ratio of praise to recommendations. The sincerity of the one delivering the feedback is always more critical than how the points are structured, but any recommendations must show sincere desire to help the individual and be accompanied by specific strategies or actions that can be implemented.

For example, imagine someone telling someone else: “As you have said you would like to improve your fitness, I recommend you go to the gym.” This is actionable, but not specific. If that same person said, “Go to the gym each Friday at 5:30pm for one hour and do these four exercises to improve your leg strength and overall fitness,” then that changes everything. Specificity is the key to progress because it empowers the other person to act.

  1. Timely

The more time that elapses between the event occurring and feedback being received, the less impact it will have. Timeliness is key.

There’s an old adage: “Actions speak louder than words.” If a time is agreed for feedback to be received and the one delivering it runs over in a previous meeting, arrives late or does not show up at all, what is really being said? “You are not my most important priority.” When someone is delivering feedback, the one receiving it should be made to feel like they are the only person on earth. The deliverer is in a significant position of trust regarding the recipient’s career, confidence and (in some cases) mental and emotional well-being. Timely feedback is more likely to show empathy and retain sufficient coverage to be both specific and actionable, thus meeting the other cornerstones. If it is late or rushed, it is at best likely to lack sufficient detail or sensitivity to have any real impact.

What happens if the individual receiving the feedback is late or doesn’t turn up? It says, “I don’t care what you have to say – I don’t need your help and don’t feel like I can learn anything from you”. This creates a negative impression and breaks trust.

If you are delivering feedback, be prompt. If you are receiving it, turn up on time and be prepared to chase up someone – even if they are senior – when feedback is not being received promptly.

Conclusion

When you run a business and manage a team it is your privilege to support and guide them.  They may be business leaders of the future. If you treat them like they already are and they’ll make you a great business owner and leader right now, and you’ll be rewarded by contributing to their future success.

Be FAST with your feedback: from the heart, actionable, specific and timely. The way in which we communicate at work, in our communities, and at home will be a key factor in improving quality of relationships, productivity, happiness and success.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Simon Day is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club,visit www.toastmasters.org

 

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