February 2, 2021

Feedback is Life: A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure for Excellent Feedback  

Self-managing teams require an extremely cooperative framework. That cooperation is central to the Agile mindset.   

Part of that cooperation is the process of sharing feedback—either from the internal team, management, or from the client. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been tasked with giving feedback, now or in the past.  

Here’s the thing: Not everyone is well-equipped to deliver or receive feedback. We’ve found that this is especially true in tech fields, where there is already a premium on smarts and personalities loom large. After all, if they are the hired professionals, they should know the best way to go about things. Right?  

A core part of the Agile mindset is the idea that feedback almost always improves a product or service offering. It prevents teams from going down blind alleys, and keeps the work closer to what the client, and the market, demands.  

And what better way to illustrate the power of feedback than to let you, reader, offer a little feedback for the very blog post you are reading? Because every person has a different experience of, and with, feedback in their organization. Rather than have you read a “one size fits all” article with vague advice on feedback, why not take you through a more agile approach, where you get just the advice on feedback you need? We suspect that would make for a more interesting, and more useful, read.  

So: We are going to ask some questions, and all you have to do is answer honestly by clicking one of the offered choices—whichever one best fits your situation. Think of it as a “choose your own adventure,” but for intrepid HR professionals and team leaders.  

As a more advanced exercise, you can also work through the article, casting yourself as a member of one of your teams. When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it can help you decode their behavior and understand how the feedback loop is breaking down in your teams. From there, it’s easier to make helpful suggestions.  

Take your time, and have fun! 


The Feedback Loop: Driving Feedback Successfully  

Feedback is a loop: How it’s delivered usually impacts how it’s received. If someone is utterly uncomfortable or afraid to be direct, for example, the entire conversation has a tone of dread and insecurity to it.   

When I give feedback:  

  1. I get to the point. This is work, after all. Click here 
  2. I’m a little uncomfortable being direct. Click here  

I get to the point. This is work, after all. 

Professionals should be able to give and get feedback without hurt feelings, right? 

Indeed, part of being a professional is being able to give and receive constructive feedback in a straightforward, but gracious, way. 

That said, some feedback situations are more uncomfortable than others. Maybe someone made a huge mistake. Or maybe the feedback means that a lot of previous work was for nothing. It’s those tense moments that make some other hesitant to provide direct feedback. 

It sounds like that’s not you, however. You are more direct. That’s a good thing…but how do others take your directness? How do you react if someone is not as professional when receiving your feedback? 

If that person has an adverse reaction to my directness:  

  1. It’s mostly their problem. Click here 
  2. I take a step back and remind myself that not everyone is as direct as I am. Click here 

It’s Mostly Their Problem 

Wow. you’re so direct, we’re calling you Directly Direct. 

How many times have you said this: “I don’t come to work to make folks happy”? That’s completely fair. Most of us come to work for that monthly incentive called “a salary.”  

But you also really value what you do, and how you contribute to the team, which makes you a values-driven person. That drive is married to your direct communication style. You probably get more value from being productive than you do getting along with everyone.  

If things aren’t moving along at pace, you likely respond to the stress by pressing ahead and looking for answers immediately. In fact, a lack of progress probably stresses you out so much that, if you break a few eggs on your way to that omelet, you’d rather deal with some ruffled feathers rather than a disappointed client.   

Your motivations are excellence and progress. That’s nothing to be ashamed of! In fact, if it weren’t for direct communicators like you, progress would almost always likely stall somewhere.   

Leaders and colleagues with direct communication styles tend to drive respect or admiration because you take the guesswork out of everything. People know where they stand with you. There’s never a moment in a conversation with you where anyone has to read between the lines or wonder if they’re taking anything out of context. Being an assertive communicator is good for your mental health, and the health of the listener, too. According to the Mayo Clinic “Assertive communication is direct and respectful. Being assertive gives you the best chance of successfully delivering your message.”  

Just beware of being overly assertiveAlso from the Mayo Clinic: “If your style is aggressive, you may come across as a bully who disregards the needs, feelings and opinions of others. You may appear self-righteous or superior.” Indeed, when you are too straightforward for colleagues and clients (especially clients!)  who aren’t used to being as unvarnished as you are, you need to be careful that you’re not coming across like a jerk. 

So, how can you tell when treading the line between assertive and bullying? How do you know when it’s time to “dial it back?” 

Try flipping the script and solicit feedback from the more empathic members of the team. If they are being equally honest and direct with you, you’ll get some good insights. 

While you do that, here are some tips for your arsenal, Directly Direct:  

  • A little apology goes a long way. Ex., “I’m so sorry if my directness is making this process more difficult.” 
  • Slow down and give them a moment to regroup. Ex., “Let’s take a breather for a second.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a straight shooter, until you see that it could be hurting someone’s feelings. Sense this?  
  • Rehearse! If you know you’re dealing with someone who is likely to be sensitive to your communication style, do some role playing or get advice from someone who “gets” you beforehand. We all have to prep for big meetings, so find a way to bring this into your prep strategy. 

You might also want to go through an exercise with your team that helps to establish some ground rules for giving and receiving feedback. Let’s look at these next. 

I take a step back and remind myself that not everyone is as direct as I am.  

Bravo! It sounds like you are keeping that all important balance between directness and sensitivity. After all, work has to get done, and feedback should be a natural part of that (especially in an agile workplace). But if feedback is not received well, that will create more problems than it helps.  

When feedback is handled humanely, it also is a self-fulfilling cycle in that everyone in the organization starts to look forward to, rather than dreading, the process. As the Harvard Business Review puts it, “Effective criticism needs to be delivered with respect and care. Frequent or exclusively negative comments can spark defensive reactions that cloud perceptions and dampen motivation.”   

To help get the entire team to this point, it might be time to revisit and share the Feedback Ground Rules. 

I’m a little uncomfortable being direct. 

Truth be told, this is very natural. Giving feedback to someone who might not take it well tends to trigger our stress response, which puts us in a “fight or flight” mode. This means that people who are uncomfortable giving feedback might freeze up, “beat around the bush,” or avoid feedback conversations entirely. Or, they might get oddly defensive at the least bit of pushback.  

This especially tends to happen if you’ve never been officially taught how to share thoughts in a constructive way. Giving feedback, like most other things, is a skill that can and should be taught. If not taught (or not taught well), it can feel strange–like anything you say will be taken personally, or construed as an insult.  

Those feelings are natural, and indeed, they are not entirely unfounded. Very often, the stress reactions you might feel are a response to your audience’s own tone and body language as they receive your criticisms–the feedback to your feedback, if you will.  

So think about that stress reaction. Which best describes yours?  

  1. I feel terrible and freeze up.  Click here 
  2. I tend to get defensive. Click here 
  3. I take a deep breath and try again. Click here 

I feel terrible and freeze up. 

Wow. This really isn’t your thing, is it?. That’s okay! We’re calling you The Introverted Empath.  

Does this describe you? “I don’t know how to back my way out of the conversation, particularly if they get defensive. This happens so much of the time, I just start to resent the process.”  

The problem is that when you freeze up, it tends to leave the process unchecked and uncontrolled. You are no longer in charge of the conversation. What started as constructive feedback can easily turn into a– ahem– bitch session. Or, end the conversation outright.  

Look, you introverts out there: We see you. For whatever reason, introverts tend to get such a bad rap at work, and that’s utterly unfair. But what’s remarkable about introverts is how noble and selfless they tend to be. They don’t like being the center of attention in any discussion, and they tend to care a lot more about how people feel. Those are both good things!   

The problem is that our feelings do not exist in a vacuum. How we communicate sets a tone, for better or for worse. This is  a phenomenon known as mirroring, where one person unconsciously imitates the speech patterns or attitude of another person. For example: When you’re giving feedback, if you sound unsure, you’re likely to make the recipient of your feedback feel insecure, anxious, and self-conscious, too. That will in turn make them feel defensive, which will make you feel even more stressed. The Feedback Loop is now spiralling out of control.  

Your feedback exercises, Introverted Empath, could include:   

  • Start out the entire conversation with this simple statement: “It’s really hard for me to be direct, so thank you for your patience as I share some important feedback with you.” Opening up and being honest reduces tension for both of you.  
  • Use notes and refer to them if you need to and remind the listener that you’re using notes so you can stay on point and focus the conversation where it should be.  
  • Remind yourself that this isn’t about you, it’s about the process. The more you see the value in what you’re bringing to the discussion, the more confident you’ll be in what you’re saying and the less you’ll worry about how you’re saying it.  
  • Introverts are great listeners so play to that strength! Use those listening skills in every meeting to take detailed notes about progress, and use those very notes when you’re giving feedback Win/Win! 
  • Ask for help. If this isn’t your strongest area, there’s probably some training out there that will give you the skills you need.

Once you’ve mastered some of these exercises, it’s time to visit the Feedback Ground Rules. 

I tend to get defensive. 

Defensiveness means you’ve come ready to justify your position. That’s important–but remember that most people react badly to feedback not because they lack justification, but because they somehow feel threatened by it. Maybe they are skittish about change, or maybe they feel like they’ve poured their heart and soul into their work, only to have it criticized…  

Whatever the case might be, the key is to listen first, and save the defensive reasons for later.  

Ask for their candid reactions, and let them vent a bit. Repeat what they say, in your own words, to verify that you’ve understood it– and they know that you’ve understood it. 

There’s a name for that: Active listening. Indeed.com nails it. “Active listening helps others feel comfortable sharing information with you. When you demonstrate your ability to sincerely listen to what others have to say, people will be more interested in communicating with you on a regular basis.”  

No, really–you’ll be amazed at how quickly people will calm down when they feel like they’ve been heard by an impartial person with a sympathetic ear. And when people are calm, they are much more open to feedback, even the constructive kind.  

So practice active listening for a while, and then vow to set some Feedback Ground Rules with your teams. Continue to Feedback Ground Rules.  

I take a deep breath and try again. 

Great! It sounds like you are taking steps to control your own reactions to the person receiving your feedback. Bravo.  

If the other person is truly getting defensive, a pause can be the right way to go. Let’s face it: Sometimes, how people react to you isn’t about you. Sure, maybe you came off wrong. But maybe the person is just tired, or hungry, or frustrated. In the end, it doesn’t matter–what matters is that you do the right thing: Step back for a moment, don’t take the reaction personally, and give the receiver space to feel heard.  

If you find that you are taking that deep breath too many times in a week, with different team members, you might have a more systemic cultural issue on your hands. Perhaps it’s time to get the team together and work on setting some feedback ground rules.  

Next: Feedback Ground Rules 

Feedback Ground Rules  

Everyone should always be using the same playbook for something as critical as productive feedback. So, for the team, ground the process in some good feedback fundamentals.   

  • Is the feedback accurate and fair? 
  • Is my intent to be sincerely helpful and constructive? 
  • Is this feedback absolutely necessary and is now the time to give it? 
  • Am I doing as much listening as I am talking? 
  • Did everyone leave the meeting feeling heard and respected?

If you’ve answered “yes” to all those questions, then you’re heading in the right direction. You just need to tweak your communication style in these circumstances to yield the best results.   

Also, always ask the feedback to evaluate their own performance or to summarize how they think the project is going. If they share your feelings, you know that the conversation is about to get a whole lot easier. If they don’t, consider whether or not you need to dig deeper, listen to them, and incorporate their position before you bring up a completely conflicting viewpoint.   

Not everyone has received equal exposure in being trained in how to give feedback. Provide those opportunities for training also ensures that the whole team is playing from the same feedback playbook.   

The Feedback Loop: Productive Listening  

You know this already, and it’s a cliche, but communication is a two-way process. How you receive criticism is just as important as how you deliver it. This especially goes for criticism that you suspect is wrong or misplaced. So let’s ask:  

When I get feedback, I tend to:  

  1. Relax and listen. I know it’s not personal.  Click here 
  2. I ask questions and try to see what’s behind the feedback. Click here  
  3. I tend to freeze up. Click here    

Relax and listen. I know it’s not personal. 

Did you pick this one just because you knew we’d heap praise on you?   

No seriously, did you? Well, even if you did, let’s talk about why this is so awesome. First of all, you’re right. It’s not about you. We don’t even have to tell you that it often doesn’t matter if the feedback you’re getting is a little, well, off. Clients, for example, are potentially asking for help or guidance but don’t want to insult you or come off as insecure. That could compromise the process, except that if you do what you say you do, and breathe your way through it, the outcomes are still the priority.   

Whether you were being sincere, or just being a good student, your reward for this path is this video of cats pushing things off of tables  

The journey didn’t end there, though! 

I ask questions and try to see what’s behind the feedback. 

If you’re asking questions to better understand the feedback you’re being given, that’s great. But be careful– most of the time, when we’re asking questions, it’s a way of being subtly defensive about the feedback being given.  

Asking for information is fine, and there’s a strong argument to be made that the person delivering that feedback to you should expect to share some with you. But remember: This is an exercise in listening first and foremost.  

So, if you tend to be the million-questions type, work on getting into the right headspace for listening to feedback. Continue  

I tend to freeze up. 

There are many people who can’t help but have a fear reaction when confronted with something negative directed towards them. Freezing is just as common a response as getting defensive or angry.  

There’s nothing wrong with having that feeling. Just be aware that too much fear has a tendency to turn off our brains. A freezing response to feedback might be preventing you from actually hearing and digesting what is being said.  

Here are some tips:  

  • Remind yourself: This isn’t a critique of you as a person. 
  • Take notes! It will give you something else to focus on. Plus, you can always refer back to them later when your nerves aren’t quite as raw. 
  • Memorize this and repeat it: “If I seem nervous, I’m a little bit shy. It doesn’t have anything to do with you, and I appreciate that you took the time to speak to me directly.” Eventually, you’ll believe it!

You really think we’d leave you hanging there? We saved the best bits for last! 

Setting the Right Headspace for Feedback

Listening to feedback is critical, not only from your fellow team members but especially from your customers. We all have to assume that clients have good intentions, even if they don’t have the best communication skills. What they are trying to tell you is more important than how they are delivering the information.   

Defining the rules of the road for feedback is critical for engaging, and perhaps even retaining, clients. So, remind the folks internally that good communication skills don’t just impact your internal culture. They are a vital ingredient in your very product development process.    

Here are some good rules of conduct for listening to feedback for everyone, regardless of your natural inclinations.  

  • Prepare with some chill time beforehand. Step outside, listen to music, schedule five or ten minutes to talk to a friend or a loved one.  
  • Take this to heart, and mind: Feedback is not an attack. It’s not about you, and it’s not you that’s being critiqued.  
  • This is how we all improve. If people weren’t willing to accept round after round of feedback, nothing would ever get done. 
  • Take notes and write down questions. Often when we see something in writing, especially our own, it takes the sting out of it. Taking notes turns a sometimes subjective meeting into an objective exchange of information. 

You Gave Us Some Great Feedback! Here’s Why That’s Important. 

Believe it or not, you did give us some great feedback.  

True, choosing from a bunch of hyperlinks is not quite like giving feedback face-to-face, or even in a written note. But, by choosing one path or another while you read, you were essentially giving feedback as to what information would be the most valuable to you.  

The result? The words that you read were more tailored to you and your relationship to feedback. In short, the product (blog post) was closer to what you needed, because of your feedback along the way.  

This is the heart of an agile approach or agile mindset. When we start out with a project, it’s not always clear what the end product should look like. It is the process of feedback that helps it evolve over time– and become maximally useful for users.   

And there’s no reason why that approach should be limited to software. It can work with almost any product…including a blog post.  

So just imagine what a more robust feedback process could do for your desired outcomes. Implementing it isn’t necessarily that difficult, if it’s clear from the outset how important it is and what the ground rules are for giving and receiving it. 

A good book to read about providing feedback is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. Need more assistance than a book can offer? Don’t hesitate to contact usWe’re here to help.  

John Krewson

John started Sketch in service to the mission of improving the ways people and teams work together. His past experiences as an agilist and professional actor are the primary sources of inspiration in leading this mission.

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