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The Startup

Struggling to give feedback? Use SPIT.

Why is feedback needed?

Feedback is something which is vitally important to the building of one’s character, one’s skills and one’s beliefs. If you’ve ever come across an arrogant arsehole, a meek modest mouse or someone who will argue that earth is flat until the end of the world… Hopefully you’ll come to realise that all of these attitudes can be related back to lack of feedback in one way or another.

So why are we not giving feedback?

Over my career I have often considered the reasons for why feedback wouldn’t be given or why feedback is given, but it’s not the honest truth. From what I have gathered by speaking to different people, I believe it tends to fall in to one of three reasons:

  • “I don’t want to be mean.”
  • “They don’t want feedback.”
  • “I don’t know how to give feedback properly”

Now all of these reasons are justifications for not giving feedback and in some scenarios, they could be relevant. But here I’ll try to tackle them and hopefully give some insight or at least a different perspective on why we can’t use these as excuses.

I don’t want to be mean

This is probably one of the most common reasons for people not giving true and honest feedback. When your friend looks at you and shows you a piece of work they’ve put a lot of effort into, or even your kid looks up at you and shows you the picture they’ve drew to be stuck on the fridge; How do you tell them “Wow, what a load of crap”. (Disclaimer: this is not an article on parenting advice).

Well the simple answer is; it’s hard. But in many situations it is required and for the greater good. Kim Scott, a brilliant author, wrote a book called Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean. In this book she coins the term Radical Candor which simply means to “Care personally, but challenge directly”. This can be interpreted in different wayswhen giving feedback one should be direct and not beat around the bush, ensuring that the message is clear so there isn’t any space for miscommunication. However, don’t be a dick about it. Show you care and you aren’t just giving the feedback to give your input, but because you know they can do better, you want them to do better, and you’re there to support them as best you can.


The diagram above shows one of the simplest ways that Radical Candor can be explained, however I won’t go in to all the terms in this article as you should really read the book, but I will explain Ruinous Empathy as that mostly applies in this section.

Ruinous Empathy is essentially staying quiet or not giving honest feedback to the point in which it can be damaging to the person. An example of this can be where a person’s work is not up-to-standard, but because you don’t want to hurt their feelings you keep telling them it’s great. That is until one day, their boss turns around and fires them for their work being inadequate. By not being honest with them or helping guide them to improve, you’ve in fact been complicit in their downfall. Whilst an extreme example, this clearly demonstrates how Ruinous Empathy works and hopefully is enough to show you how sometimes not giving honest feedback, can be just as “mean” as giving telling the harsh truth.

They don’t want feedback

Being completely honest, it is not often I have ever come across someone saying “No I don’t want feedback”. In fact, there has only been one. I think most people usually always say they want feedback due to if not, people may judge them as arrogant.

The truth of the matter is this. Not everybody wants feedback all the time, and not all situations require you to speak, but merely listen. Sometimes people are telling you a story or simply ranting, not with the expectation of feedback on their actions or ways to “fix” their scenario, sometimes they are just blowing off steam. And that’s all they need. Make sure to practice differentiating between the situations in which someone is looking for guidance, and the times when someone just needs a should to cry on.

So, ensure that when you’re talking to someone, the scenario is the correct one for giving feedback (e.g. a one-to-one at work for example). If you’re unsure, then ask the person you’re talking to whether they’re looking for advice and feedback or just want you to listen. However, do be wary of the opposite side of the scale. You may come across someone who doesn’t want feedback, but needs to hear some criticism and that, my friends, is the time you need to bite the bullet and put those Radical Candor skills to the test.

How do you give feedback?

The last main reason tends to be that people just don’t know how to give feedback, or they’re giving feedback but it just isn’t…useful. Firstly, when I say that feedback isn’t useful, that’s the type of feedback where your boss may say “Yeah all is good, keep doing what you’re doing”. Sure it’s great to hear things are going well, but it’s not constructive. You can’t progress, you can’t set goals, you don’t actually know the specifics of what you’re doing well, you’re just… being you. For all you know those reports which you think are great and spend hours writing up for your boss may be getting pushed straight to the bin pile… whilst the fact that you tell your boss what you’re working on each morning in a quick bullet-pointed list allows them to have confidence that you’re self-organised and don’t need hand-holding.

It is for these kind of reasons it is important that we give the useful feedback and in a decent way. On your travels through life, you may have came across the term “Feedback sandwich” or as most of us know it “Shit sandwich”. This is where you give a complement or a piece of good news, followed by the bad news/criticism (and the actual heart of the matter), followed by some more good to soften the blow. Whilst the intention of this is well-meaning; to not hurt someone’s feelings, this actually causes confusion, is often dishonest and overall lowers the importance of your actual feedback. Avoid using this technique at all costs.

Instead a better method of giving feedback is to SPIT at them. No… not literally.
SPIT feedback, as I coin it, is as follows:

  • Specific — Be specific and clear in the feedback you’re giving. Don’t beat around the bush or tackle too many issues at once. Keep it focused and ensure that it is useful.
  • Positive — Be positive and forward-thinking. The aim of the feedback isn’t to tear someone down, but to help them progress and change for better in the future. Keep a positive, can-do attitude and offer support where you can to resolve the issue, rather than fixating on the past and it’s negative impact.
  • Intention — Think about your intention for giving the feedback. Ensure you have the right one and know what you’re trying to achieve. What do you want to come out of this? Is it useful for this person to hear? Ensure it’s not a personal agenda.
  • Time — When giving feedback, make sure it’s the right time. Depending on the situation/scenario, sometimes it is best to do it later in private, rather than right there and then in a meeting full of others. However, make sure the feedback is given close enough to the cause and not months down the line after the mistake has been repeated or it is too late to action.

By following the SPIT method, you avoid many of the issues caused by the “shit sandwich” and it allows you to infuse some of the teachings of Radical Candor as well.

So hopefully by now you’ll be able to have seen the importance of feedback, and picked up some new terms and techniques, if not at least learned of some pitfalls to avoid. Let’s bring back a feedback culture and remember to keep SPITing!



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