The Art of Constructive Feedback

Apr 03, 2017 |Rory Tyer
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Understanding how to both give and receive feedback can make the difference between professional advancement and career stagnation, between healthy relationships and toxic or frustrating ones.

What images come into your head when you think about the term feedback?

Maybe you've had a performance review like the one my wife had recently. She's a physician assistant and has a monthly meeting with her supervising physician during which they review a random selection of her completed medical charts. In one of these meetings, she asked for feedback on her performance. Her supervisor reminded her that she had an upcoming performance review, implying that she should just wait until then.

"Yes, but that's in a few months," she replied. "I'd like to know sooner than that if there's anything I need to change."

The physician paused for a moment. "Well, there is one thing," he said. "You need to be more flexible."

My wife (who is a detail-oriented and hardworking person) was horrified. She's done what she can to work with her colleagues and supervisors for the good of their institution, and it was hard for her to hear that she was inflexible. "OK," she calmly replied. "Can you give me an example?"

No examples were forthcoming. But her supervisor wasn't finished. "There is something else, something even more important. You need to improve your general awareness."

My wife wasn't sure what to say. "My general awareness? What do you mean?"

"Oh, you know, just your general awareness," her supervisor replied. "You're here, and there are also doctors over here, and nurses, and then the patients. You just need to be more generally aware." And at that, he smiled knowingly, as if he had said something profound and helpful rather than something profoundly unhelpful.

My wife told me that at that moment she expected to turn and find that she was actually on an episode of "The Office." She would have given the camera her very best Jim Halpert stare of exasperation.

Why Feedback Matters

Issuing feedback isn't just a workplace concept; we constantly exchange feedback with those around us in almost every area of our lives. In this sense, feedback is shorthand for the verbal and nonverbal signals we give those around us. Even silence can be a loud signal. Most of us are familiar with what it's like to receive unhelpful feedback. Here are some common examples:

  • Being confused or misled about someone's intentions in a romantic relationship
  • Hearing over-the-top praise from friends, then realizing you don't really know what you did well (if anything)
  • Being told you need to improve your numbers at work, but not how much or in what specific ways
  • Having someone visit your small group for two months and then suddenly stop coming. When you ask why, they say, "It just wasn't a fit."

Understanding how to both give and receive feedback can make the difference between professional advancement and career stagnation, between healthy churches/friendships/romantic relationships and toxic or frustrating ones. Twenty- and thirty-somethings who practice and improve the skill of effective feedback set themselves up for better career advancement and healthier relationships across the board.

Theologically speaking, engaging in healthy feedback is one way to live out Paul's instruction to the Philippians: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Phil. 2:3-4). Feedback done well benefits everyone involved and makes for greater unity in teams, churches, relationships, and organizations.

How to Give Helpful Feedback: The SBI Framework

In my work with missionaries, church leaders, nonprofits and corporate teams on giving and receiving feedback, we use a framework developed by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), a research-driven non-profit organization that does leadership development and organizational consulting work around the world. The word "framework" is specific (rather than "definition"). There are many definitions of feedback; our goal is to introduce a new mental model that helps people work and communicate differently in any context.

It's important to remember that underpinning this framework is the conviction that we should give mostly positive feedback. Many times we intentionally give feedback only when something negative needs to be changed or when prompted by a constructive need. To develop high trust and candor it's important to create a culture of positive, specific feedback. This makes it much easier to provide critical feedback when necessary.

This application may sound especially workplace-oriented, but it's worked wonders in my marriage. My wife and I have made a habit of saying supportive, affirming, specific things to one another on a regular basis. It's now much easier for me to hear critical feedback from her because I trust she has my best interests at heart and isn't out to get me. She notices when I do things right and really wants to help me be that person more often.

CCL's feedback model is called SBI, which stands for Situation - Behavior - Impact.

Situation

One common trait of unhelpful feedback is a lack of trust. One way to develop that trust, in addition to building a culture of positive feedback, is to be careful to establish common ground and understanding about the situation that calls for feedback. This means setting the scene and describing the context for the specific behavior that prompted the feedback.

A mentor of mine once gave me very helpful feedback, and he followed this model without realizing it. In that case, the first thing he said to me was, "I'd like to talk with you about the discussion group we had last Tuesday night. Do you remember the discussion?" I was able to affirm that I did, which laid a foundation of shared context.

Behavior

Once you've described the context so that both you and the one hearing your feedback are on the same page about the "where" and "when," you can now identify the behavior you have in mind. At this point it's important to be very specific. A behavior is not a perceived attitude, trait or quality of a person or a perceived intention. Behavior is something that you heard or observed.

Because a common characteristic of unhelpful feedback is a lack of specificity, focusing on a specific behavior solves this problem. Continuing with the example from my mentor, he asked if I remembered a discussion about a specific topic. "Do you recall that you were the one who talked the most? You had the most input, you spoke quickly, and you had the loudest volume of the group." I did in fact remember doing these things, and I admitted as much.

Impact

Now that shared context and specific behavior have been established, the final ingredient is talking about the impact of this behavior on the one giving the feedback as well as the perceived impact on others in the situation (if applicable).

My mentor gently shared with me that he was frustrated by my participation in the group dialogue because he perceived that it made others unwilling to share. He perceived that others felt they had no space to contribute their own opinions because of the strength of my own. That made him feel frustrated because his intention in leading the group conversation was to hear from all of us, not just the vocal few. He also shared that he expected more of me and thought I was able to do a better job of making space for others.

This measured approach helps blunt another common characteristic of unhelpful feedback: attacking the person rather than addressing the behavior. In this conversation, my mentor did not assign motives to me or question my character. He didn't blame me for anything; he simply related the impact on himself and the perceived impact on others.

I was free to disagree with him at any point. I could have argued that he was misremembering the context, that my behavior was different than he put it to me, or that his perception of the impact on others was wrong, but it was not possible for me to argue my behavior's impact on him. Because I trusted him and because he made clear that the negative impact on him was due in part to higher expectations for me, I took it to heart, and it was a major step toward self-awareness in my life.

Moving Forward

Healthy feedback is just one way to help improve the culture of a relationship or an organization. In my office, we even turn it into a joke: "Can we have an SBI moment?" The awkward humor helps defuse a potentially tension-filled conversation because we know that each has the other's best interest at heart.

If you find yourself in a situation with unhealthy feedback patterns, I encourage you to do what you can to model and talk about the SBI framework. It is one way to bring about greater unity in important relationships and situations, not to mention catalyze personal growth that will pay off down the road.

Copyright 2017 by Rory Tyer. All rights reserved. 

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