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April 18, 2022

Your 4-step guide to giving better feedback

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Oct. 11, 2022.

    People usually appreciate receiving constructive criticism, but few feel comfortable offering helpful feedback, Melinda Wenner Moyer writes for the New York Times.

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    Why some people have a hard time providing feedback

    According to Moyer, a reluctance to provide constructive feedback to others is "commonplace," even if it would ultimately benefit the other person.

    For example, a recent study found that only four out of 155 participants who interacted with a researcher who had something on her face, such as chocolate, lipstick, or marker, informed the researcher of the blemish.

    When asked, the participants said they would also be unlikely to point out if a coworker mispronounced someone's name, made mistakes in their reports, or spoke too quickly when presenting—even though many reported wanting to receive that feedback if they were in those same situations.

    "We really want feedback, but when we see someone else, we're a little hesitant to give it," said Nicole Abi-Esber, one of the study's authors and a doctoral student in organizational behavior at Harvard Business School.

    One reason people refrain from giving potentially helpful feedback is because they worry about how it could affect their relationship with others. Lauren Simon, a professor of management at the University of Arkansas, said empathetic people may have a particularly hard time giving others constructive feedback since they "might be overly concerned about how providing difficult but constructive feedback could hurt the recipient's feelings."

    People also underestimate how much others would want constructive feedback. In fact, Abi-Esber and her colleagues found that people "hold [their] tongues just as much with people [they're] close to—friends and family members—as [they] do with acquaintances and colleagues," Moyer writes.

    How to provide constructive criticism

    To "overcome the unhelpful tendency to stay quiet," Moyer offers four expert-backed tips on how to effectively offer constructive criticism.

    1. Think about how the other person would feel

    Imagining yourself in another person's position may help you feel more comfortable with giving feedback, particularly if you would want it yourself in the same situation.

    "If you were the one talking too loudly on the phone at work, or walking around with spinach in your teeth, wouldn't you want to know?" Moyer writes.

    Although people may be concerned about the impact of giving feedback, they should also think about the negative impacts of withholding feedback. According to Simon, people should "remind themselves that providing feedback is often the most caring option, all things considered."

    2. Frame your feedback carefully

    The "sandwich" method, in which criticism is placed between two layers of praise, has been recommended as an effective way to provide constructive feedback, but experts say that it is not supported by evidence.

    In fact, Naomi Winstone, a cognitive psychologist who studies constructive feedback at the University of Surrey, said the sandwich method "may actually have a detrimental effect by diluting or muddying the really important advice" you're trying to offer.

    Instead, people can offer feedback the same way they elicit it—as advice. According to Hayley Blunden, a doctoral student in organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, the future-oriented nature of advice "can open up people's thinking" and make them focus on what could be, rather than what has already happened.

    In addition, giving advice, which looks towards the future, may feel less critical than feedback, which focuses on past actions. This could help more empathetic people "let down their guard and share more specific insight," Blunden said.

    3. Focus on key priorities with specific goals

    While not giving any feedback can be unhelpful, giving too much feedback can also cause problems, Moyer writes.

    "Providing comments on absolutely every element of performance can be overwhelming," Winstone said. "Instead, focusing on the key priorities for improvement, with clear guidance on how to take the next steps, can be the most motivating."

    Providing people with specific goals in your feedback may also make them more likely to change their behavior, according to Catherine Sanderson, a psychologist at Amherst College.

    "A coach who says 'try harder' to an underperforming athlete might be less effective than a coach who says, 'You need to develop greater strength, so starting tomorrow you should spend 30 minutes each day lifting weights,'" Sanderson said.

    4. Find the right timing

    According to Simon, you should "[a]void giving feedback when you or the intended recipient are feeling stressed or emotionally charged." Instead, you should wait for a time when people are calm and receptive to the feedback being offered.

    In addition, Sanderson recommended that you make it clear that your feedback has to do with their behavior rather than their character.

    "Don't make it personal," she said. "It's important to separate what the person said or did from who they are." (Moyer, New York Times, 4/14)

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