What I’ve Learned About Giving Feedback to Peers

Dustin Hodge
Mar 5, 2015 · 4 min read

Gah. So hard.

I mean, giving feedback at all is hard, but when you’re a subordinate or a supervisor, there’s at least some built-in structure. It’s (relatively) easy to take advantage of that structure to communicate feedback with the appropriate amount of respect and deference.

Even when giving feedback to people that are basically the same level as you but in other disciplines, it’s (relatively) easy to recognize that you probably don’t know their field/job nearly as well as they do.

Where there’s humility or structure, deference and respect come naturally. Water likes flowing downhill.

But giving feedback to peers? Fuuuuuuuuck. As Malcolm Reynolds once said, “It never goes smooth — how come it never goes smooth?!”

I think it’s because they don’t have to listen to you. Not really. (And you don’t have to listen to them. Not really.) Basically all you’ve got is arguments, evidence, and influence. Sounds like a good arsenal, but really this is small comfort. As we’ve seen from the various political debates, even in face of the indisputable logic and cold, hard evidence, you can still fail. Sometimes people just don’t want to believe it.

Maybe you’re a natural born politician and this stuff comes natural to you. But I’m not that. I’ve had to learn the hard way. (And I’m still learning.) What I’m about to say may not work for you, but then again maybe it will.

(And I’ve distilled it down to a magical 3 things, so, that means it must be right. Right? Right.)

1. Sometimes good enough is good enough

This is often really difficult for me. I’ll be reading a document or something and there’s something in it that’s just wrong and it just needs to be fixed. But then I realized when people take that tone with the stuff I produce, I really hate it. Because you know what? Often, even if it’s not perfect, it’s better than it was. And no one likes being shat on because they just didn’t improve enough. (You don’t often get to use the past tense of “shit.” That was fun.)

This is not to say you should accept mediocrity. But you should accept that perfection is a mirage. As long as y’all keep trying to improve, sometimes good enough is good enough.

2. Pick your moment.

Everyone says “pick your battles.” Maybe I’m just an idiot, but for the longest time I didn’t know what the fuck that meant. Because as far as I was concerned, everything I got passionate about was worth battling over. I mean, that’s why I felt passionately about it. (Yeah, sometimes you get passionate about stupid things for stupid reasons, but it doesn’t feel stupid at the time.)

I realized I just needed to be more sneaky about it. When I read something someone wrote or see something someone else is doing that I disagree with, I write down my thoughts about it, secretly, and then — this is the important part—I shut the fuck up. Sooner or later, one of two things will happen:

  1. Someone will ask you, directly “How could I improve this?”
  2. The problem you anticipated will rear it’s ugly head. Who’s got two thumbs and the solution? You do.

The thing to notice about both of these things is you’ve picked the moments where people will be most open to hearing you out. Even if your feedback is some icky medicine, they’ve just handed you a spoon made of sugar.

At this point, you may have noticed that I lied — there’s actually a third thing that could happen. Which brings us to…

3. Sometimes you’re going to be wrong. And that’s ok.

Story time: Not long ago, after weeks of research, I started a new gym routine. Clearly it’s the best EVAR because I just did all this research and if another one was the best EVAR then I would be doing that one, not this one, so that one is clearly not the best EVAR, this one is. So that one’s wrong. I was convinced that everyone else in the gym — even the dudes who were big and muscley and lifting really heavy weight and clearly better at this than me — was just doing it wrong.

I wish that every time I discovered that a deeply-held conviction of mine was just completely wrong it literally scarred my body. Maybe that would help me remember that, smart as I am, I can play a damn good village idiot.

So. If it turns out the horribleness you expected did not come to pass, guess what? You avoided looking like an asshole. (Oh, and you also maybe learned something, which is important I guess.)

And, bonus (this would be a 4 except I already promised you 3): now you’ve got an opportunity to hand out some legit, heartfelt recognition.

So learn from my mistakes, friends.

Or, I dunno, if you’re just looking for a change of pace, feel free to make my mistakes instead of yours — whatever works for you. I promise I’ll shut up about it. (For now.)

The Coffeelicious

    Dustin Hodge

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    me.tags = [UX | IxD | Transit | Urbanism | Maps | Data | Storygames | Music]

    The Coffeelicious

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