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Providing Feedback

By Roger Ellerton Phd, ISP, CMC, Renewal Technologies Inc. www.renewal.ca

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Providing and receiving feedback, whether it is asked for or not, is a regular feature of interacting with others. We generously provide our opinions to others in the hope that they will change their thoughts or behaviours in some way. That is, in a way that we believe will be of benefit to them or us.

But do they really hear what we are saying? Are we presenting our feedback in a way that the other person is open to receiving or at least considering?

There are many different approaches to providing feedback. At one end of the spectrum are those who never compliment you on what you have done well, but only offer feedback when there is something that needs correcting. If you have been subject to this type of feedback, you know that after a while you begin tuning out these types of people and even avoid engaging them in any meaningful conversation. At the other end of the spectrum are those who sugar coat the feedback to such a degree that you are not really sure of the point they are trying to make.

Generally providers of feedback are well intentioned. The problem is that the delivery mechanism used may not be the most appropriate.

So how can you provide feedback? I believe there needs to be some balance - let people or teams know what they are doing well and hence should do more of and also let them know where there is room for improvement.

Feedback Sandwich

A popular form of feedback is the feedback sandwich. Simply, what this means is you sandwich any feedback that may be interpreted in some way as negative between positive comments. When done appropriately, this can provide a nice balance between those things the person/team has done well and those areas where the feedback provider believes the person/team could improve.

The feedback sandwich does have its drawbacks:

  • Metaphorically, this approach is often viewed as a bun (the positive feedback) and the meat (the negative or constructive feedback). This is unfortunate, as the 'meat' or the real substance of the matter may actually be about how the other person has done something particularly well. That is, the 'meat' does not have to be negative.
  • The positive feedback may be very thin and the recipient perceives this as a veiled attempt to only criticize.
  • The feedback provider, either because they do not have confidence in what they wish to say or not wanting to upset the recipient, may place too much emphasis on the positive feedback and provide little 'meat' or direction for improvement.
  • Knowing that the feedback will include both positive and negative points, the recipient may wonder how relevant all of the feedback is. That is, were some points introduced or was unwarranted emphasis placed on one or more points simply to provide more of a balance?

The feedback sandwich is a good place to start and the question is: How can we improve it?

Know the Context

Sometimes, in our attempt to be helpful, we provide feedback without knowing the context or purpose of the other person's actions.

For example, suppose I build a low, sleek, high-powered car with only a driver's seat. Without knowing the context, you may criticize it as not being much of a family car. However, if the context (my intention) was to develop a revolutionary racing car, your feedback is off topic and not of use to me.

Before providing feedback, determine the context/purpose.

Focus on Improvement Rather than Criticism

Far too often, feedback comes across as criticism. To overcome this, identify the issue and then make suggestions on what the person can do differently next time to improve on what they are already doing well or to avoid potential difficulties.

Avoid Getting Caught-Up in the Rules

We have rules for everything; sometimes they are written down and sometimes just assumed. There are always exceptions to the rules. Before providing feedback, check to see if the rule really applies in this situation.

I remember receiving feedback from a colleague on a presentation that I delivered. He pointed out that during my presentation I had turned my back on the audience in order to adjust a flipchart. He went on to say that according to a well-respected public speaking organization, turning your back to the audience is something that you just do not do - generally a good rule. I followed up with the feedback provider and found that my actions in no way diminished his enjoyment of my presentation, that not to adjust the flipchart may have resulted in problems later during my presentation. It was all a matter that there is this rule and I violated it.

Use NLP's Logical Levels as a Guide

NLP's logical levels can be used as a guide for presenting your feedback. You may choose to focus on:

  • Environment - where, when and with whom. That is, the person may have chosen an inappropriate (or great) location, time or group of people.
  • Behaviour. What specifically did they do or not do?
  • Strategies/Capabilities. You may wish to comment on their approach (strategy) or maybe a capability/skill they demonstrated or failed to demonstrate.
  • Beliefs/Values. Unless the person actually stated their beliefs and values, it is difficult to provide feedback at the Beliefs/Values level. You can however ask questions about their beliefs and values and then provide feedback on this information.
  • Identity. At this level, you are best advised to avoid any negative feedback, e.g. You are incompetent. Rather comment on the behaviours that led you to this conclusion.
  • Spirituality/Purpose. Here you may wish to ask questions about the purpose of his/her actions and the connection to a larger system.

Speak What is True for You

Speak from the heart and talk about the impact of the person's actions on you. For example, when you did X, I felt Y. Feedback recipients can argue about the impact of their actions on others, however they can not dispute the impact their actions had on you.

Be Clear as to Your Purpose

When giving feedback ask yourself, "For what purpose I am providing this feedback?" If it is to prove you know more than someone else, to bring another person down to your level or it seems to be the thing to do; then maybe you should reconsider and explore what you can do to move yourself forward.

Sometimes your purpose is honourable and appropriate, yet your feedback is focused on the recipient performing a specific behaviour. A behaviour that you may find easy to do, but the recipient may feel this is too prescriptive or not feasible or not acceptable. In this situation, it may be more appropriate to raise the issue and then volunteer to work with the other person to explore ways that this issue can be addressed.

Ensure the Recipient is Open to Receiving Feedback

Before giving feedback, make sure you have been invited to do so or ask the person if they would appreciate receiving feedback. If the answer is no, then move on to something else. Providing feedback when it is not asked for or appreciated is simply a waste of time. It may satisfy a short-term need you have and it may not build a healthy, mutually supportive relationship with the other person.

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Author: Roger Ellerton is a certified NLP trainer, certified management consultant and the founder and managing partner of Renewal Technologies. The above article is based on material from his book Live Your Dreams Let Reality Catch Up: NLP and Common Sense for Coaches, Managers and You.

Copyright © 2008 Renewal Technologies Inc. All rights reserved.

Books and ebooks by Roger Ellerton

NLP book: Live Your Dreams NLP book: 5 step action plan NLP book: Parents' Handbook NLP book: Win-Win Influence Self-publish your books NLP and Personal Growth Thoughts Volume 1 Book: NLP Techniques Anyone Can Use

You can view all of my books on one page at Amazon or use the links below to take you to a specific book on your country's Amazon site. My books are also available through other fine online book retailers.

For additional information on these books, please see renewal.ca/product.htm.