Creating the Right Space for Feedback

What happens outside the conversation is as important as what happens in it

Remember that time someone gave you a gift and you opened it and were like, “oh wow, this person doesn’t know me at all”? Maybe it wasn’t your style (or size), or too flashy, or just totally not anything you’d be into? The type of gift that is more about the person giving it, than about you?

Well, most feedback is like a shitty gift, given for the sake of someone else.

Great feedback, on the other hand, is a gift for both parties. When approached with curiosity, care, and understanding, giving feedback becomes a learning conversation. The first step in doing this skillfully is to drop the idea that feedback is a one way street — that the person giving feedback is “right” and the person receiving feedback is somehow “wrong”. This kind of thinking makes the shittiest of gifts.

Creating the Space

Okay, so you want to give someone feedback. Maybe someone did something great and you are giving them feedback to celebrate (yay!), but more often than not feedback comes up when something seems to be going off the rails. Before you open your mouth and share whatever happens to be in your head in the moment, pause. Most of the important work giving feedback actually happens before the conversation itself. The following is a check-list I like to run through to make sure I’m creating the right space:

  1. Ground yourself. Take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to settle into the present moment. What’s happening? Are you feeling reactive or judgmental? Maybe you are feeling anxious? Or perhaps thoughtful and focused? Giving good, clear feedback requires us first to be aware and in control of what’s happening in our inner world. Taking a few moments to ground and connect with ourselves is mandatory for a good feedback conversation.
  2. Get clear on your why. What’s really driving the desire to provide feedback? Do you want to prove that your own ideas are right, validate your abilities, take someone down a notch? It’s hard to admit, and even harder to do the reflective work to know what we’re really up to, but when we’re feeling reactive or anxious to provide feedback, the underlying motives might be self-serving. If your why is coming from a place of insecurity, go back to step one and ground yourself until you move away from reactivity and can connect to a why that serves a larger purpose.
  3. Embrace curiosity. You don’t have the full picture. No one has the full picture. It’s just the nature of human perception — we cannot possibly take in all the information and process it, so we select a subset of data to pay attention to that in turn informs our beliefs. Approaching feedback conversations from a posture of learning will help everyone involved understand context, perspectives, and assumptions. Here’s a tip: if you are feeling judgmental, negative, or ready to assign blame, you’re probably not in learning mode.
  4. Understand power dynamics. In a position of power (especially positional power) being grounded, curious, and open is critical when entering into a feedback conversation. If you are reactive and ready to reinforce your own truth, the person on the receiving end will shut down. At this point, the conversation is no longer about learning and as a leader you’ve just poked yourself in the eye. What could have been a conversation filled with new perspectives and information is now a one-way street and you’re not going to learn anything new. Power dynamics are important to understand even if you aren’t someone’s direct manager. Maybe you’ve been there longer, have a more senior title, are a co-founder, have a lot of influence — whatever it is, be sensitive to power dynamics and if you find yourself reactive or defensive, pause, breathe, and get curious. And if you can’t do that, save the feedback session for another time.
  5. Ask for consent. Given that we’ve all probably had less-than-wonderful feedback conversations, asking for consent is a kindness that gives the person on the receiving end of the feedback a heads up for what kind of conversation is about to happen. This can be a simple, “Hey, I have some feedback I’d like to share with you. Is that something you can hear right now?” If they are rushing towards a deadline or having a bad day, they may want to reschedule the conversation. Most times people will be open to receiving feedback and can switch into feedback mode, but make sure you ask for consent. The other benefit of asking for consent is that we can clearly signal we are giving feedback. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people try and give feedback and the other person has no idea they are in a feedback conversation. Be kind, ask for consent. It’s a nice ritual that creates space to shift into a feedback conversation.
  6. Share your feedback. You are grounded, curious, open. Clear on the purpose of the conversation. Aware of power dynamics. And you’ve asked consent. Now what? There are a number of frameworks that can be used to guide the actual conversation itself. A few I have used over the years: ASAP + Agree, Situation, Behavior, Impact Feedback Model, Non-violent Communication, Issue Clearing. Using a framework might feel awkward at first, but they can be helpful when it comes to keeping the blame game out of the conversation. Until you’ve had a lot of practice with these types of conversations and know how to consistently stay grounded and open, frameworks can be a useful resource to re-orient towards curiosity and learning, even if the conversation gets challenging.
  7. Get clear on what needs to happen moving forward. You’ve had a great feedback conversation — multiple perspectives and interpretations have been explored, misunderstandings and miscommunications have been clarified, there is a sense of clarity, trust, and understanding that is present — but before you wrap up, be sure you both decide what needs to happen moving forward. This isn’t about detailed action plans and bulleted lists, it’s about knowing you are leaving the conversation with a shared understanding of what’s different and what’s changed. Ideally you’ve both learned something, so what are you going to do with those insights?
  8. Give your sincere thanks. Share your gratitude for the recipient’s willingness to be open to feedback, and to be willing to explore a learning conversation with you. This sets the tone for future conversations and builds trust. Feedback conversations are so often equated with the feeling of “being in trouble”, so the more we can create a different experience of feedback, the more these types of conversations can happen.

Good feedback is about curiosity and clear intentions. It doesn’t matter what framework you use (eventually you won’t need to use one!), what matters is that every feedback conversation becomes a learning conversation. If you are willing to engage in a mutual exploration of what is happening, and if you are willing to honor the experiences of others, you’ll find these conversations can become a foundation for trust, growth, and possibility. Best of luck on your feedback journey!

Curiosity and presence. Coach to unconventional leaders at method & matter. Obsessed with time. Design, decoloniality, systems, learning. She/her.

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