By Rebecca Alley
Editor’s Note: What follows is a coaching and feedback manual created by Rebecca Alley originally for the European Committee. She developed it from coaching resources, masters-level interpersonal communication courses, and goal-setting courses.
How to give appropriate feedback
Giving good feedback is a skill that many people could improve on. There are a lot of aspects to giving good feedback, and you probably already have at least a little bit of an idea of what good feedback looks like. If somebody within your quidditch organization—whether that organization is a team or an NGB—is not doing their job, what’s the better way to approach them?
- “Hey there, Arthur—you’re not doing your job at all. Why are you so lazy? You need to work harder.”
- “Hey Arthur, I’ve noticed lately that you’re not getting your work done on the deadlines we talked about at our last meeting and that’s making it difficult for me to get my own project done. What’s going on?”
Chances are, you said B. (If you said A, then you need this guide even more than I thought.) But why is that so much better, and how can you craft your feedback in a similar way?
There are a million and one ways to think about this, and most solutions can be found with a quick Google search. But in the interest of keeping things fun and quidditch-oriented, we’re going with this acronym: B.E.A.T.E.R.S.
We’re going to go through each of these words and find out what they mean and how they relate to giving good feedback.
When you’re reading this, keep in mind that there are two types of feedback. Positive feedback is what somebody is doing well. Negative feedback is the opposite—things that people can or should improve on. Skill in delivering feedback is ensuring that negative feedback doesn’t come across as something truly negative or intentionally offensive, and ensuring that the other person leaves your feedback session or conversation feeling motivated to change even after hearing negative feedback. Negative feedback can also be referred to as constructive criticism, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll simply be referring to the two types as positive and negative.
Without further ado, I present to you B.E.A.T.E.R.S.! These are things to consider when giving effective feedback.
Balanced feedback takes into account both positive and negative criticism and makes sure that there isn’t too much of one or the other. On the one hand, only giving a person praise won’t lead to growth, but on the other, if somebody only hears what they’re doing poorly then they are likely to become discouraged and stop trying. There are several methods that you can use to ensure that feedback is balanced.
One that you may have heard is “two stars and a wish.” This is a simple way to think about it, by telling somebody two things you’ve seen that they’re doing well and one thing they could be doing better. It is also a very good way to get people to reflect on their own performance—you can ask people to do a self-assessment with two things they’re doing well and one thing they can do better. The “two stars and a wish” method can be useful to help you see where other people are. Also, it can be a good tool to firstly force people to think about what they’re doing well, and help them learn to frame negative feedback as something to do better on next time. Most of us tend to dwell on negatives and frame them as things we’ve done wrong rather than as opportunities for improvement.
If you choose to use this method, be aware of using the word “but”. Most people will be immediately on edge when they hear “but,” and it will tend to negate any positive feedback you’ve given.
Here’s an example of this technique:
“Melissa, you’re doing a really good job getting your projects in on time, and you’ve attended every single meeting. That’s great! Something I’d like you to work on is your spelling. I’ve noticed that our editors spend a long time correcting the pieces you write, and it means they have less time to look at other work and bigger edits. Can you take a few minutes before you submit every piece to run it through spell check? I know that the editing staff would appreciate it!”
Now go back and read that again, but replace the second sentence with “… but I want you to work on your spelling.” Can you see the change in tone? It negates the positive feedback, and the tone change creates an opportunity for Melissa to hear the negative feedback as something truly negative rather than an opportunity for growth and self-betterment.
An alternative to this is the POP technique—sandwich the Opportunity for improvement (the negative feedback) between two Positives. This can be good because it ends on a positive note, but there’s a trap in this one, too. That trap is the empathy sandwich: instead of giving the opportunity for improvement in the middle and making it clear how someone can improve, it’s usually easier to just make people feel good about themselves. If you choose to use this method, you need to be comfortable with giving negative feedback.
Here’s an example of the POP method:
“Hi, Melissa, I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate you getting all your projects done on time. I’m a little bit worried that the quality of the work might be sacrificed for speed, though. I noticed the editors have been spending longer on your work recently. Would running it through spell check work for you? If you need to talk to me more about this, let’s chat after the next meeting—you always make time to attend them, and that’s fantastic.”
In order to make feedback productive, communication needs to happen both ways. You have to engage the person you’re giving feedback to. Instead of a top-down directive, have a conversation! This makes people feel less attacked because they have a chance to talk back to you. By engaging somebody in conversation, you’ll hear their side and thus have the chance to alter whatever suggestions you decide to make accordingly. Actively inviting the other person to discuss things with you might also offer up the opportunity to decide, based on what they tell you or information you glean from the conversation, whether or not the feedback you wanted to give is inappropriate.
Going back to Arthur, who’s having problems getting his work done on time…
You: “Hey Arthur, I’ve noticed that lately you’re not getting your work done according to the deadlines we discussed, and that’s making it difficult for me to get this project done. What’s going on?”
Arthur: “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I should have told you earlier, but my mum’s been in the hospital, and so I’ve been spending a lot of time with her.”
In this case, maybe your feedback isn’t even applicable anymore. You’ve engaged Arthur in conversation and now understand his point of view, and so at this point, you probably want to talk about pausing his projects or setting more realistic goals due to the time demands of his family life.
Once you’ve heard somebody’s side and have a feel for where they’re coming from, engaging them will help you discover a solution together. People are more likely to follow through on something that they feel they’ve had a hand in deciding on, which will lead to the outcomes you want.
When delivering feedback, you always want to make sure that you talk about a person’s actions, not their personal characteristics. Think about times that people have attacked you as a person, instead of telling you something about your work or actions. You probably shut down and didn’t hear anything beyond “You’re lazy” or “You’re mean.” Anyone you’re giving feedback to will react the same way. So, make sure you’re not that person—sure, tell the person responsible that their actions can be improved, but avoid language describing them personally, attacking their personal characteristics, or even words like “bad” or “wrong.” Think carefully about what words you’re choosing to convey your message. Highlight the actions to change, not how they’re being done or who’s doing them.
Another way feedback can be action-oriented is to make sure that you’re proposing plans for improvement once you’ve discussed the problematic nature of what’s already happened. Don’t just tell somebody what they can improve—help them figure out what they can do to improve it. If they’re doing something poorly, they’re probably not doing it deliberately out of spite or because they hate you and just want to make your life difficult. They’re probably performing poorly simply because they don’t know how to do better. So help them figure out how they can improve.
An example of feedback incorporating both of these types of action:
“Juliet, you haven’t been coming to meetings for the last few weeks, and it’s making it difficult to organize between your department and the other departments.”
The speaker clearly points out what it is that Juliet has done that has resulted in her having this conversation. No personal attacks or unnecessarily pointed language is used. The conversation continues:
“Can we work together to find solutions and help you adjust your workload so you can attend in the future?”
The speaker asks Juliet how they can work together to fix the problem and move forward. No accusations are made; the entire conversation is about making Juliet’s life easier (“adjust your workload”) so the entire organization can profit.
When you’re giving feedback, it’s better to give feedback as soon as possible after the related incident or problem at hand. This makes sure that the incident is fresh in your mind and in the mind of the person you’re giving feedback to. Ideally, you’re giving feedback more or less continuously—rather than having big, long, sit-down meetings every six months, give a little bit of feedback on a regular basis. This can be positive or negative feedback. If you see something good, tell the person! It begins to develop a relationship and makes it easier to give negative feedback when you need to.
Timely feedback goes hand-in-hand with specific feedback, which will be discussed in a few points.
The environment you’re giving the feedback in is very important. Again, think about what you like when you’re getting feedback. Would you rather get feedback in a public room, or when you’re busy doing something else, or when you’re more or less alone with the person giving you feedback? Hearing things you need to improve upon can be hard, even if the feedback is delivered well, and it’s much more respectful of a person’s feelings to give them feedback in a way that is as private as possible.
When giving feedback, balancing timeliness with the necessity of a good environment for its delivery can be hard. One way you can do this is to simply ask whether now’s a good time for feedback. This lets them accept or decline—at least for now—and if they say yes, you can then suggest moving the conversation somewhere a little bit quieter. If they say no, then you can ask them when works well and set up a time to chat.
Things get more difficult with online workspaces. When you rarely talk to people in person, feedback might have to be given online via a chat function, email, or video call. When possible, set up a situation that allows the person receiving feedback a chance to reply more or less immediately—if you communicate with somebody primarily over email, consider using email to tell the person that you have feedback and ask if you can schedule a video call or a time to chat. Follow the same rules as for in-person feedback, though. Ask the person if now is a good time to give them some feedback, and make sure to talk to them privately.
Do not give personal feedback in a video call with a group of other people or in a public forum.
The golden rule of quidditch is “don’t be a jerk.” This is the golden rule of feedback, too. Think about how you would like people to give you feedback, and do the same for others. Consider the feelings of others and how the way you word things might impact their feelings.
This encompasses everything else we’ve talked about: engage in conversation to work with them rather than giving them directions; find a more private location; don’t attack them personally but talk about the work or actions instead; and give a good balance of positive and negative feedback.
There are a few other ways to ensure you’re being respectful. The first thing is to come from a genuine place of seeking to understand.
Remember: people probably don’t fail to meet expectations because they’re intentionally out to get you. Use negative feedback as an opportunity to understand what’s going on in somebody else’s life and find a mutually beneficial solution.
A second thing tactic is to use “I” statements. “I” statements can be a good way to ensure you’re not attacking the other person or saying things that could be interpreted as an attack. Instead of “Archie, you’re not doing what you say you’ll do” (this could imply they’re lazy or not a nice person), consider “Archie, I’m feeling overwhelmed because I’m having to complete your work as well as mine.”
Because with that alteration, you’re instead saying how their actions affect you, and it feels less like an attack. That alteration shows the consequences of the person’s specific actions.
Giving specific feedback goes along with giving action-oriented feedback in a timely manner. You want to make the person you’re giving feedback to aware of what—specifically—they’re not doing well, and what—specifically—they can do to improve it.
Once you’ve given somebody feedback, they should be able to answer:
- What exactly was I doing?
- Why was it not going so well? (Or: Why was it going so well?)
- How can I do it better? (Or: How can I make sure it continues to go well?)
So, a good, specific piece of feedback might look like:
“Hey, Ed, thanks for the response. The feedback I wanted to give you is that I was feeling really frustrated when you weren’t replying to my emails. I sent you three follow up emails (two Mondays ago, last Monday, and again last Thursday) and didn’t hear anything back until today. I know you’re busy, but it makes it difficult for me to finish creating this tournament guide since I’m waiting on your map. In the future, can you reply and at least let me know that you’ll get around to it, and give a date? That would let me know that you’re thinking about the project and will complete it in time.”
In most cases, you won’t give your whole piece of specific feedback all in one block like that—you’d have a dialogue with the person and ask about how they’re feeling about it, what they think they can do to make it better, and work together to find a solution. Regardless of the conversation, the person needs to be able to answer the three questions above by the time the conversation is over.
Now that you’ve read this, you have an understanding of how to structure good feedback. A quick review:
Balanced—let people know what they need to improve upon (negative feedback), but balance it with what they’re already doing well (positive feedback).
Engaged—have a conversation, find out where they’re coming from, and work together to find solutions.
Action-oriented—talk about what actions are causing a problem, rather than their personal shortcomings; figure out what actions they can take in the future to fix the problem.
Timely—don’t wait forever and a day to give feedback; make sure it’s soon after the incident you’re talking about (this helps both of you to be more specific).
Environment—give them feedback somewhere more private, when both of you have time to discuss it.
Respectful—come from a place of wanting to understand, talk about how their actions affect you, be careful of your language and how you phrase things, and don’t be mean.
Specific—make sure they know WHAT they were doing, WHY it wasn’t working, and HOW they can improve it in the future.
Do all of these and you will be a feedback master. I know this seems like a lot. It is. It will take the time to learn. While you’re learning, you can always ask a friend to look over feedback you send (make sure to take out any names to protect the privacy of the person you’re giving feedback to) and see if it aligns with the above criteria. (And in the end—hey, then you get to be on the receiving end of some feedback!)
Here’s the ideal timeline feedback should follow:
- THE INCIDENT. Something happens, and you want to give the responsible party feedback to make sure it doesn’t happen again (or make sure it happens all the time!).
- Figure out if you can give this person feedback. If they’re subordinate to you in a work environment, and THE INCIDENT is work-related, it’s appropriate for you to simply offer the feedback at a time that’s convenient for both of you in most cases.
If the person is not subordinate to you (i.e. coworker, boss, a person you’re collaborating with on a project, etc.) then it’s respectful to contact them and politely ask if they’d like some feedback relating to THE INCIDENT. If they say no, then stop and walk away. If they say yes, go ahead to step 3!
- Contact the person in a private environment and ask if now is a good time to give them some feedback. If not, sort out a time.
- Start by presenting THE INCIDENT. Outline specific details, use “I” statements, and explain the consequences of this person’s actions. This is when you can use your POP or “two stars and a wish” method, if you so choose.
- Listen to the other person. They might explain the reasons behind their actions, why they felt it was appropriate, or even just apologize, depending on whether the feedback is negative.
- Work together with the other person to come up with a specific course of action to make sure THE INCIDENT does or doesn’t repeat itself.
- Smile and thank the person for their time and reaffirm your belief in them. Make sure they go away from this interaction feeling good about themselves and the plan you’ve come up with.