How to give good feedback

When you have constructive feedback to give, chances are you’ll make a common mistake; you’ll lead with talking, not with listening, says Therese Hudson

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Management Today

It feels like you should lead with talking – after all, you’re the one with the important message; you need someone to deliver, and you’re worried they won’t. But researchers find that leading with listening improves the conversation in two ways. 

Firstly, people feel less anxious when they’re talking with a good listener. When you listen to me, I become less worried. I can think more clearly, which means that, if you’re saying I need to meet an impossible deadline, I’m still concerned but, if I see you listening, I stay calmer. Because I’m composed, and thinking more clearly, I’m more equipped to figure out how to reach that high bar.  

Secondly, good listening facilitates tough feedback by enabling nuance and candor. Put an employee in front of a bored, distracted listener, and researchers find he or she will become one-dimensional. A bored listener brings out the used-car salesperson in all of us, where we describe only the strengths of our work, straining and repeating ourselves because we can tell the listener’s mind is elsewhere.  

However, take that same employee and put them in front of a deeply curious listener and a shift occurs. With a good listener, that employee describes not just the strengths of his or her work, but also where they’re running into trouble, and what they should have done differently. If we want to hear the whole story, we need to show we’re listening to the whole story.  

Maybe Alex has been flaky about meeting deadlines, and he can’t be late this time.  Start by asking, “How is the project going?” He may mention his own deadline concerns but, if not, raise yours. “We really need to land this deadline. Your work is crucial, and I’m worried it won’t be ready.” Then immediately move to what are known as ‘person-focused questions’, asking for Alex’s take on the situation. 

Ask for his perspective

“How do you see the situation?” or “What are you coming up against?” 

Show you’re listening

Say, “I want to be sure I’m understanding you,” then paraphrase his key points.

Ask for his opinion on next steps

“What do you propose?” focuses on the future, not on past blame. You might need to propose more rigorous steps but, because you asked and listened, he’ll be more receptive to your suggestions. 

Offer to help

Try “How can I help?” or “If you could wave a magic wand, what three things would ensure you’ll meet that deadline?”

Avoid questions that begin with ‘why’

It’s easy to get the tone wrong with a ‘why’ question – immediately putting the other person on the defensive. So, instead of asking, “Why did you miss the last deadline?” try “What’s got in your way in the past?” 

Lead with listening, and even unwelcome feedback will land well.    

Therese Hudson is author of Let’s Talk: Make effective feedback your superpower

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