How to Do Feedback

What’s the strangest piece of feedback anyone’s ever given you?

For me, two separate snippets spring to mind – both of them from work colleagues.

The first one occurred at lunchtime.  In between bites of a limp tuna sandwich, my colleague said, apropos of nothing, “I’ve noticed that you only ever wear combinations of red, white, and black.  It’s like you’re paying tribute to the Egyptian flag, or something.”

The second one happened at my desk, while I was working on some presentation slides.  Deep in thought, I hardly noticed one of the company directors walk in, until he said (again, apropos of nothing), “You know, the great thing about working with you is that you don’t need any boring old praise or encouragement.  You just get on with it”.

Both pieces of feedback surprised me.  Firstly, because I hadn’t asked for them, and secondly, they told me things I wasn’t previously aware of about myself.

I hadn’t realised that I only wore Egyptian flag colours to work. I’d just subconsciously thought those colours seemed like the most ‘professional’, so I stuffed my wardrobe full of them.

I also had no idea that I’d been exuding “don’t encourage me” vibes, because I am extremely insecure, and outrageously, disgustingly needy.  I thought that was just a simple fact, generally accepted by everybody I’ve ever met.

(If you ‘Like’ this article when you finish reading it, you will honestly make my day).

I’m not saying I turned up at work the next day dressed like a sunny afternoon, or that I started screaming until someone paid me a compliment – though looking back, both of those things would have made office life more interesting. 

Those comments were just interesting to know, and I was glad that the people who made them had felt comfortable enough with me to be honest.

I credit searingly honest feedback with helping me become a better person, and a much better writer, over the years.  But I’ve noticed that most people aren’t all that good at giving or accepting feedback, whether it’s nice or nasty. 

They’ll get overly upset about a comment they weren’t expecting, or they’ll feel so embarrassed about saying something ‘negative’, that the point they wanted to make gets lost in fake compliments.

I think I notice it more because both of my chosen careers have involved extra-large dollops of comment and criticism.  HR is, of course, all about the feedback (usually feedback other people are too afraid to give), and you cannot be a writer without all kinds of people telling you exactly what they think about your work – as my one-star Amazon book reviews show.

It’s because of all this, that I feel suitably qualified to give the following ‘feedback-related’ advice.

How to Give Feedback

Ask yourself: how would you feel about the feedback you’re about to give, if you were the one getting it? 

Then, what do you know about the person you’re feeding back to?  Do they appreciate no holds barred honesty? 

If you don’t know them well enough to know the answer, be tactful, or – particularly if you’re taking it upon yourself to offer feedback unasked – don’t say anything at all.

Whatever you do, avoid the ‘shit sandwich’ approach – a ‘negative’ piece of feedback squidged in between two ‘positives’ – if you can.  Most people will sniff that out straight away, so your positives will sound insincere. 

Oh – and whatever else you do, pick a reasonable time for your comment-making.

(This is more important than you might think.  As an example, I remember a disastrous week-long training course I was once forced to take part in when I started a new job. 

Specific ‘feedback-giving’ sessions were scheduled for 10pm on the first night, after dinner and drinks had been downed.  These sessions were utterly shambolic, and by morning, most of the comments had either been forgotten, or they’d contributed to the simmering atmosphere of resentment that plagued the rest of the week).

How to Accept Feedback

Whatever it is, smile and say thanks.

If the person meant it in a positive way, they’ll feel warmly validated.  If they meant it in a negative way, they’ll be wonderfully confused.

Meanwhile, you can ponder their comments at your own leisure, deciding whether you should act on them, or just completely ignore them instead.