One of the first skills I learned as a workshop participant was how to effectively provide interpersonal feedback. We practiced it during our presentations, and applied it back on the job as part of the performance management process. As a trainer, I’ve focused most of my career on performance management, presentation skills and trainer training. Feedback has been a key component of that training. I usually introduce the concept pretty early in any session I lead.

My manager at the time put it this way: feedback is a way to help me see myself as others see me. It allows me to understand how what I do and say affects others and determine whether that’s aligned with what I wanted to achieve in the first place. Feedback helps me decide what to keep doing and what to change to achieve the best possible results.

Here are some of my key coaching points for providing feedback:

  • Feedback focuses on your reaction to what you see and hear. In other words, you’re providing your feedback on observable behaviour. Unless you have a sixth sense and can read minds, your focus should be exclusively on tangible, observable activity.
  • We may not see things the same way when providing feedback and it’s OK to have different perspectives. My boss had another great line (he was somewhat of  a Zen trainer) – I only observe what I’m looking for. You may have had a positive reaction to a particular aspect of someone’s presentation/training session/work. Someone else, might not felt the same way. That’s OK and it’s the nature of individual feedback – I’m not speaking for you when I provide it, nor are you speaking for me. It doesn’t mean you or your fellow participants are disagreeing with each other, or are right or wrong, just that you have unique perspectives. When I receive consistent feedback from participants, it implies that I’ve been effective in getting a message across to a diverse audience (or have accomplished total mental domination.) If feedback is all over the map, I wonder if I might not have varied my approach enough. If I receive unique feedback from one person, I might consider them insightful (or in the wrong room.)
  • It’s not about what you liked or didn’t like – it’s about what happened, and how – specifically – it affected you. Saying “great presentation,” “That went really well,” or “It was OK” may make the receiver feel terrific or a little deflated. From a developmental perspective, comments like this aren’t particularly helpful. They’re not “good” feedback. As a receiver of feedback I want to know specifically what went well (or not.) I want to know what I did that made that presentation great, that meeting go really well, or what made my training session just OK.  It’s great to feel good, but it also feels great to know what you did well, and what didn’t work so well so that you can improve next time out. I may not have liked your powerpoint, but it will probably be more helpful if I tell you why it didn’t work for me – because it has too much text, distracting animation, typos, etc.
  • I can provide factual feedback about what you did and my reaction, but I’m only making assumptions if I comment on why I think you did it that way. Participants sometimes react to feedback with the response “I did it that way because…”  In the context of my feedback, I probably wasn’t aware of your reasoning at the time, and anyway, the approach you selected didn’t work for me the way you’d intended, regardless of your rationale. It’s all about me at this point –  how I reacted to what I saw you do. Discussing your rationale can provide useful information after the fact. It might help identify alternatives to help you achieve the results you’d hoped for. The key word here is discussion rather than feedback, and when I’m providing feedback I prefer to stick with behaviour and impact. It’s the difference between ” You looked nervous when you fidgeted with your pen” and “I was distracted when you fidgeted with your pen.”
  • It’s not a sandwich. I’m not a fan of “sandwiching” suggestions for improvement between “positive” feedback. For starters, I see well structured feedback as always positive (or at least neutral.) It looks toward a positive outcome , whether I’m suggesting an improvement, or highlighting something that was effective for me.  The key issue I have with the sandwich approach is that it becomes predictable – recipients learn what to expect from your feedback and see the positive feedback as a way to soften the impending zinger. The value of feedback on things that went well is diluted as a result. I’ve had recipients say “Chris – get to the point.” It simply feels manipulative, particularly if the provider manufactures trivial positive feedback to “layer the sandwich.” If all you have are suggestions for improvement, that’s where you should go, but do it kindly, with a focus on success. Otherwise, start with your positive feedback and then move on to your suggestions.
  • It can be a learning experience for the provider as well as the receiver. Providing feedback is a terrific way to develop your critical evaluation skills. It can also help you nail what’s important to you, and why. This can be particularly important where you need to self-assess your success as a trainer. Here’s a link to an interesting article in the Harvard Business review on how to get the feedback you need.

The driving force behind feedback should always be helping the recipient achieve success by mastering what they already do well and identifying opportunities and strategies for improvement. Focusing on behaviour and results will facilitate that improvement.