How to give constructive feedback

How to give constructive feedback

When you are working in a team, and part of a community, it is likely at some point things will become challenging between people.
Communication has come a long way in a short time and even though we have the tech, we may not have some of the skills we need to use it in optimal ways.

Many moons ago I wrote the ‘communication’ section of Professor Robert Winston’s book ‘Human’ (he is Lord Winston now), as well as several other books on the same theme.

On a very personal note, people ‘giving me feedback’ has been a challenge. I would always take it, well, personally. At even first hearing of those words I would drop my chin, sharpen my focus and generally prepare for battle. Now, after a lot of practice I’ve become far better at listening to people’s perspectives, valuing them, and potentially changing behaviour that leads to better working relationships.

If you are part of a team I suspect communication is going to be the one skill that could put you in a strong position to lead.

Let’s begin with a little re-conceptualizing…

What is feedback?

Feedback occurs when outputs of a system are routed back as inputs as part of a chain of cause-and-effect that forms a circuit or loop. (source)


Feedback was a word that sprang forth in the middle of the twentieth century, with authors like Stafford Beer writing on the subject of Cybernetics, which in turn became the base to much conversation on ‘Systems thinking’.

feedback 1

In other words, someone says “I would like to give you some feedback” and then they give you information.
How is this different to “Let me tell you something…”? (imagine saying that in an aggressive voice tone) or ‘How about you stand there for five minutes while I vomit my emotional response over you…’ (sorry for the visual)

Well, it seems that this has basically become a shift in ‘tone’ that has become the norm in many exchanges.

There are ‘feedback sessions’, which are great in a formal learning environment but that are not ideal in general working relationships.

It is hard for the tone of voice not to be loaded with emotion when the context is ‘out of the blue’.
Look at the synonyms before, I mean ‘retaliation’ – WTF!

feedback 2

The challenge then is this then:

How can you best give ‘information’ the best way, based on your view of it?

And we all know that perceptions are subjective.

When people think they are being constructive feedback, they may well just be unloading.

What then is a solution?

First thing is to consider whether you really want to approach this from a context of giving ‘feedback’, or something else.

Something else is often expressing how you feel about something.

And this is the best phrase I’ve ever learned to help in this situation:

When you did X, I felt Y.

Go and get pen and pencil (very retro, I know) and write it down.
Then expand it to:
When you said X, I felt Y.
When I saw X, I felt Y.

I learned this from one of the most eloquent communicators, and kindest of friends, author and master trainer John Seymour.

So let’s take a look at why this works so well, starting with the ‘Y’ component.
If you feel it, then no one can argue. (they are your feelings)

You are then saying that you responded to X, with that Y.

i.e. you saw, they said, they did, and you felt ‘something’.

Now, my friends, here is the thing. This is not feedback.
This is one pattern for effective communication that we can all learn and use when we need. Think of it like a tool in your toolbox.

This is the art of conversation.

When is feedback the way to go? And when should you doing something else? (like above)

Customer service, Reviews, formal feedback sessions all require some type of evaluation scale.

But you may well have seen the app for rating people, called Peeple? (they got hammered on social media as being distasteful, to say the least)

Performance management requires feedback processes. But that so often the line between colleagues and friends is indefinable in the workplace. People are people, and whether we like it or not, they have feeling. (ok, I am being tongue in cheek here, it is still early and I need more coffee).

Not all circumstances will be covered by the ‘When you do X, I felt Y’ pattern, so let me give you a few more tips and approaches.

Questions to ask yourself:

When you are in a position of having information that you want to ‘gift’ with people, these may well help to get you in the place you need to be:

Is this your view? Or is this a ‘fact’?
If it is based on fact, and is work focused as opposed to personal, you should be able to use the relevant information to support how you feel.
For instance, if you are failing to achieve sales then the facts are the numbers, but know that even this information exists within a broader context.

What is the nature of relationship you are seeking to have with this person?
If you have a frame of reference that you are seeking a great working relationship it is probably better than being focused on getting your point across.

Do you feel ‘heard’?
This is so often the cause of people’s pent up emotions i.e. they don’t.

Do I need to give this ‘feedback’ now?
Ask yourself, if I don’t give this feedback, what would happen?

Could you just fix the problem yourself and then give the feedback?

When you are on the receiving end of feedback you may well ‘feel something’ too.

As such, let me give you a few tips in this direction.

  1. Where should you have this conversation?
  2. Don’t have it in a noisy, busy, distracting place.
    Straighten your spine. But don’t stick out your chest too much.
  3. Breath.
  4. Breath ‘through your heart’ – this may sound weird unless you do Yoga, or something, but if you can open your heart when you are listening you may well find the information easier to take.
  5. Listen, and don’t talk until you are ready.
  6. Pay attention
  7. Stop talking in your head whilst the other person is speaking.


This post came out of someone giving me feedback. And I noticed the rising emotion to ‘hit back’, but instead I listened and acknowledged their viewpoint. They have work to do, I have work to do, and both of us have an excellent working relationship once more. Why? Because I didn’t respond, I didn’t attack.
Notice how much emotions play in your daily communication and you may well be surprised how your decisions are best when you ‘have your emotions’ and are not ‘had by them.

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