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Effective Feedback Essentials: asking, giving and receiving input from others

Versão em português aqui.

If you work in an agile consulting IT environment, you are probably aware that feedback is a vital skill.

Communicating clearly with your peers and clients is sure to improve team workflow, dynamics, and processes, enable people to achieve goals and take their career to the next level.

If you are not inserted in this context yet, let’s begin now! Feedback can be a powerful source of crucial information to get you where you want to be as soon as possible, so let’s get to it.

Disclaimer: I come from a high performance IT consulting environment where feedback culture is already consolidated and well developed. I’ll share how I absorbed lots of well-recognized feedback techniques and adapted it to work for my particular way of communicating with my team, leaders, and stakeholders. It is a must-have skill for anyone wishing to work in high-end agile companies, so here are my 50c about effective feedback.


Intro to Feedback

Feedback vs. Effective Feedback

The first thing we need to understand about feedback is: there’re techniques involved in getting/giving successful feedback. When you give feedback about how we’re doing in our efforts to reach our goal, you’re merely giving an update on things that are happening.

What makes a feedback shine is giving specific information around actions taken to reach a given, agreed, and clear goal. That’s what makes effective and successful feedback because people can do something about it to improve on the next round.

Types of Feedback

The second thing is that we have two types of feedback: Positive and Constructive. Both are valuable, and I don’t believe one is more important than the other cause, in my experience, they have equally relevant roles in my career.

Positive Feedback focuses on good aspects of one’s behavior and skills, and its goal is to acknowledge something people do well and how it is admirable and inspirational. It’s about recognizing greatness as an everyday achievement. Others may feel encouraged to learn it once they realize how much positive impact this quality can bring to one’s career and how far it can take them towards reaching their goals. It can even create new relationships and connections among teammates, since people may want to pair to get hands-on with the learning process. Positive feedback can also improve your teammate’s confidence and keep them motivated, feeling appreciated for the work they do.

Be aware: it’s not about fawning over people so you can get ahead; it’s about sincerely recognizing something that is valuable to the team and should be encouraged.

Constructive Feedback indicates behaviors to work on and do better, and its goal is to make people aware of improvement areas they may not have seen on their own. It’s about letting people know where they’re falling short and, mostly, how they can take action to keep it from happening again. Constructive feedback can give your teammates the knowledge and tools they need to make real positive changes, giving them achievable actions to succeed where they have failed in the past. That is the most crucial part of career building, cause it’s often about your ability to respond to changes or the unexpected. How do you handle a barrier? What can you do to get past this obstacle? You have to be able to listen and learn to grow. That should be the primary concern of team leaders, once they need to use their vision to increase awareness of how people can grow in their career to build a team of excellence.

Some people call it negative feedback, but good improvement feedback should always be constructive, allowing the receiver to learn from it, not only feeling bad about it. It should never be personal; it’s about how and what we need to do to best reach our goals.


The 3 Roles of Feedback

We have three roles in the feedback dynamic: the asker, the giver, and the receiver. For all roles, the key is preparation. Feedback is not only about getting the information across, but it’s also essential to think about what kind of information you want to get and how you can get the information in the best way possible. Another thing we need to consider is giving actionable information, thinking about if it is an achievable improvement request. That is why we need to get ready for this moment, so let’s plan ahead!

Asking for Feedback

Every time you do something is an opportunity to ask for feedback. Yep, I’m serious! Don’t wait for a big event or a huge accomplishment to ask for feedback. If you are pairing with someone for 1 hour, this is an opportunity you can learn from. If you facilitate a team dynamic, get participants to give their inputs in the end. Think agile: the faster you make mistakes and validate things with others, the quicker you get a great solution. For feedback, it is precisely the same. Ask for feedback regularly so you can always be aware of what are your strengths and weaknesses. You can iteratively improve a little bit with every single small adjustment, just like software development.

Think about what you want to know with this feedback. Are you looking for something specific or a broader viewpoint? Prepare questions, so you don’t forget anything and come back feeling like you didn’t get everything you needed.

Who are you going to ask for feedback? Try to get people that are a reference to the subjects you are looking to get feedback on, cause these people will probably have more maturity and knowledge to give you rich and complete information. Think of feedback givers as stakeholders, they hold a lot of knowledge about a particular subject, and they will be the person who can validate if you are on the right track.

Give people time to prepare feedback for you

It’s nice that you’re engaged and looking for guidance, but they also need time to process your request, so be patient! If you have a deadline, let them know and ask for feedback early, so they don’t have to rush it.

If you are asking for feedback to validate if you improved upon previously constructive feedback, I recommend taking several perspectives, since only one opinion may not represent the facts. The more people you validate with, the best chances are you actually improved on multiple spheres of the same subject.

Here is a checklist of how to ask for feedback effectively. I hope it helps!


Giving Feedback

We will focus on providing constructive feedback because usually giving positive feedback happens naturally, spontaneously, and without headaches. First, being in the role of giving constructive feedback is often existing in a place of discomfort. It is frequently challenging to find the right words to say what we want, and we end up giving up because it is easier, we don’t think we can speak up, we don’t want to be bothered or expose ourselves, the list of excuses is quite long. However, I would like to share a quote from Alicia Liu on the subject:

Don’t be nice, be kind — Being nice is to be agreeable, to please others. Being nice is glossing over difficulties to avoid making people feel uncomfortable. Being nice could even be seen as selfish — to spare oneself the discomfort of doing something difficult, and say nothing at all. In contrast, you cannot be kind by doing nothing. Being kind necessitates benevolent action, and this may require being disagreeable. Telling someone who is failing that they are failing is undoubtedly uncomfortable to say and displeasing to hear. Coupling that feedback with helping them understand why and how to overcome this challenge, is a great act of kindness.

With that in mind, let’s move on… When you are playing the role of feedback giver, prepare what you are going to say, thinking about their questions but also other possible situations. Did you notice something unexpected or new? Is there something you liked or that bothered you? How was the last sprint with this person? Write down bullet points, so you remember everything.

Think not only about what you are going to say but also what is the best way of communicating it so they can understand and learn from it. Adapt your language to fit their context. If you are talking to a business person, try to use a language they’re more familiar with. If you are talking to someone very technical, try to get into their mindset. Communication should always be about striving to speak the same language as the other and, if not entirely possible, finding a middle ground everyone feels comfortable with and can understand one another. Try to be flexible on your way of communicating so you can reach a broader or specific audience, depending on your current needs.

Think about the whole communication aspects and experience. Depending on how you phrase something, people will interpret the same information in very different ways. Try to use that in your favor; otherwise, it can work against you. A lot of miscommunication can be avoided if you think it through properly. Be direct, but not rude. And remember: communication is not just about words, but also body language, facial expressions, voice tone, intonation, visualization, etc.

Focus more on how you feel and your own experience, instead of assuming everyone else looks at the same situation as you do. Don’t say: you’re wrong because this is the way it is. Say: it is how I feel based on my previous experiences. This way, you don’t annulate other life experiences, and you don’t sound arrogant. If you are going to go with something very black vs. white (like right or wrong), you better have a few ways of backing it up. Use data, studies, consolidated best practices, or even your own company’s values, documentation, and bylaws to support your claim.

Some people say you should start with positive points and then move to constructive ones. But I feel differently, I believe the most important thing is to build a cohesive, empathetic, and logical timeline to give feedback. I think feedback is very context-based, so it depends on the situation, how others respond to feedback, how sensitive is the subject, etc. There are many factors in play here, so elaborate on how this information will be easier to process. Sometimes it is worth finishing on a positive note, others it isn’t. Try it out and see what works best for you!

See how I just used the previous technique here? I could have said: they are wrong, but instead, I talked about my own experience and how I feel about it.

Think about words or phrases they may take harshly and try to think of ways to replace them. For example, saying I don’t want to do something is different than saying I don’t see the point of doing it. Or saying I don’t see the point of something is different than saying I don’t see it as something valuable to the team, project, users, clients, or company. They all communicate similar information, but the last one is more appropriate for work-related conversations and offers the receiver a reason for your point of view. It’s also a great exercise to see how partial or impartial you are about the subject in question.

Give examples of what you are talking about so the receiver may understand better where and what they’re falling short. Examples help ground us and contextualize the problems in time and space, instead of just being a hypothetical situation discussion.

Show empathy! If you went through a similar situation in the past, talk about it explaining how you were able to overcome it and what you’ve learned from it. If you didn’t, try to put yourself in their shoes. If you feel comfortable, make yourself available to help and offer advice on possible ways to handle/tackle this situation.

Consider your own biases and blind spots

If you love a particular technology, are you suggesting it to the team cause it can really add value or cause you want to work with what you are most interested in? If you are giving feedback to someone who is part of a marginalized group, think about if you would feel the same way if it was a white cisgender, middle-class man. Is it still valid and applicable? Think about your past, analyze similar situations with other people to see if it bothered you, then also and how you dealt with it. Everyone has blind spots and areas to improve on how we perceive others, especially those who are not so similar to us. Consider their background and culture, particularly regarding soft skills.

If you haven’t been asked for feedback but feel you need to give feedback to someone, ask them if they want to receive it and give them time to be in the right state of mind. They have to prepare just as much as you do. Do it as early as possible after an incident, let them know you need to give feedback and then schedule a time that works for both of you. Don’t hold it in and wait to throw in the middle of a discussion. Also, do it privately, don’t speak your mind about sensitive subjects related to a single person in a group meeting.

Don’t expect people to act on your feedback immediately

Control your expectations and remember you have your own perspective, as others will have theirs. Not often people will agree on everything, what makes sense for you may not make sense for someone else. You did your job, which was to make them aware. Now it’s on their hands, let go from pressuring them into submission or the need to be proven right.

Here is a checklist of how to give feedback effectively. If you wish to go deeper into feedback giving check out Alicia Liu’s post. You can also benefit from reading about communication, such as Effective Communication, Difficult Conversations, or Crucial Conversations. If you self-identify within the female gender spectrum, you may want to check Difficult Conversations Just for Women. To put this knowledge into practice, I recommend this exercise.


Receiving Feedback

The guiding rule for receiving feedback is to practice active listening. It requires you as the listener to fully concentrate, understand, and then remember what is being said, instead of hearing and forgetting about it. You can use RASA, which stands for Receive, Appreciate, Summarise, and Ask. Don’t promptly dismiss something while you are listening to it; try to absorb, understand, and reflect upon it. Sometimes, after a while, something that didn’t make sense then, makes sense now. Take your time! For those who wanna dive deeper into the power of listening, below there's William Ury's talk about why listening matters, despite people constantly neglecting it.

Be prepared for things you might not want to hear

Sometimes we have an expectation when asking for feedback, but this expectation is not always going to be met. It’s not the giver’s role to say what you want to hear, but offer you a different perspective other than your own.

Be open to things that you might not be aware of. One of the key goals of receiving feedback is to become aware of something you didn’t notice by yourself because of your own blind spots, as I said before. So, you may be surprised, but don’t freak out and go out reacting on an emotional rollercoaster. Remember the whole process of listening, understanding, considering, learning, and applying changes.

Sometimes you are going to get feedback that you didn’t ask for. That is the moment to exercise active listening and empathy, so you can put yourself into the giver’s shoes and reflect upon it with care and attention. You may not have asked for it, but still may be useful. Think about it!

Some feedback is biased

It shouldn’t be, but feedback comes from people, and everyone has their own biases. Frequent biased feedback is when people say you should dress better, or use your hair differently, or even be less direct or decisive because it makes you look or sound aggressive. Those kinds of feedback are often sexist or racist because they’re usually directed towards women and black people only. So it is understandable if the receiver gets angry or emotionally unstable. Still, in the workplace, you are not allowed to have a reactive response to it. Even if you have the right to be nervous, try to keep calm and put yourself together cause people may think you lost your reason if you do not react professionally.

If you feel the feedback was biased, try to get other people’s perspectives to validate. Who else was involved or had the context to give you input regarding this situation? Do you know of any data or study that can help you show their comment was biased? Find ways to surround yourself with information so you can make an informed decision. If you feel you have enough information, get people who support you to speak their minds and figure out together the best way of approaching it. Sometimes we need to give feedback regarding another “feedback”, it happens!

You are not bound to act on every feedback you get

You are allowed to drop it if it doesn’t make sense for you. Prioritise and focus on what is currently more relevant, don’t try to tackle everything at once. Nobody expects you to be perfect.

Be appreciative of all feedback. Say thank you for your feedback, cause even if you realize it doesn’t make sense to you, you still got the opportunity to consider something otherwise you probably wouldn’t have thought about. I bet you’ve learned something about yourself during the process. I also bet you’ve learned something about the giver as well.

Here is a checklist of how to receive feedback effectively. If you want to go deeper into feedback receiving check out Thanks for the Feedback book.

Bonus: choose a suitable place to run the feedback session

I can’t tell you exactly what that place is, I believe in the famous consulting answer: it depends. Often we do feedback in meeting rooms, but there are alternatives depending on what you want to extract from the session. I enjoy doing feedback outdoors or in coffee shops close to work, for example. I feel tensions get considerably lower by leaving the office and we stop feeling like we're judging or being judged. Usually people feel more open and easy-going when they’re in a more casual space setting, leading the session to a conversation mood instead of becoming a stiff meeting. People can have quite a defensive or restrictive posture at work meetings, so I try to escape from this setting when I can. Also, I like it because is a chance to take a break from work and let go from whatever you were doing before coming to the session, about 2 minutes ago. Changing the environment can also change our mindset, we're literally distancing ourselves from what we need to solve by the end of the day to focus on what is happening here and now with this person.

Despite all the benefits, in a delicate situation of giving critical feedback or dealing with sensitive matters, leaving the office may not be a good idea. Talk to your partner and decide together where to go, the secret is try it! You may even discover things in common you didn't expect.


The Ladder of Inference

The Ladder of Inference describes the thinking process that we go through, usually without realizing, to get from a fact to a decision or action. Our beliefs have a significant effect on how we select from reality and can lead us to ignore the true facts altogether. Soon, we are literally jumping to conclusions — by missing facts and skipping steps in the reasoning process.

Don’t fall into the giver’s and receiver’s fantasy. The Giver believes The Receiver will act on their feedback, and everything will be fine. The Receiver thinks they have to follow all feedback, whether it’s relevant or not, and everything will be fine if they do and follow the instructions to the letter. But the reality is The Receiver is not compelled to act on The Giver’s feedback if it’s not relevant or doable. That is why it’s important to take feedback seriously and really consider what is valuable to others. It’s essential that feedback is actionable and doable, like a sprint task. If it’s not achievable, it’s not worth giving it.

If you are new to feedback culture, don’t feel threatened by the amount of thing it goes into consideration to build effective feedback. With time, this process starts to become faster, less painful, and more natural, as part of the day to day life.

Thanks for reading!


Check out the next posts from the series "What Effective Feedback can do for your career":

Part 2 - Agile Feedback Dynamics: how to continuous learn from your team

Part 3 - Feedback Boundaries: when its time to go beyond feedback

Laura Lemos

Multidimensional designer, agilist, content creator, researcher, speaker and teacher with the goal to share and democratize access to knowledge.