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Giving Great Feedback – First Set the Table

When the trend for reviews is leaning more toward the informal – where performance is measured in the moment – how to give healthy feedback is more important than ever. The real issue is whether we’re communicating it effectively and whether the receiver can hear it and then choose to do something different about it.

Many folks ask me either: how to give feedback without hurting someone’s feelings (but really needing to tell them a hard truth); or how to ask for it (and usually they’re also asking how to receive it).

But before we begin, I have learned (the hard way) that setting up the feedback moment is invaluable, especially when it is informal. That is, coming at someone from out of the blue seems to do more harm than good. Emotions tend to fly (either outwardly toward the other person or inwardly toward self), leading to less productivity and effectiveness. Not exactly what the feedback moment had in mind, right?

So let’s compare giving feedback to serving a great meal. First, we’ve got to set the table.

1. Decide what kind of atmosphere you will create. How will the table look? What’s the buzz you want to create? Even informally, this takes but a moment.

And if you have no idea what I mean, simply ask yourself where you have had the best conversations and what made them great for you. Were you gracious? Funny? A good listener? What was the purpose in having the meal together? The point here is to be aware of how you are being on the inside, giving the feedback. So easy to overlook or forget or think they won’t “see it” (or secretly hoping they will). Remember all those non-verbal cues are readable!

2. If you are upset, NOT a time to give the feedback. Wait to cool down. Kind of a no-brainer, but always worth mentioning because it happens. Many of you may be saying, “C’mon…. in business, that’s just the way it is some days.” Maybe that’s true. As you know, it does more emotional harm than good. If you’re frustrated or mad, certainly say that, but try it when you’ve calmed down. See what you think. I have found it has greater (quieter) impact. And shaming the other person one way or another certainly will not help the organization become more productive all of a sudden. It has the danger of creating paralysis or lasting resentment.

3. Sit next to them, rather than across the table. The goal here is to create a feeling of “we” rather than “you” and “me.” That way the feedback for the problem is not between the two of you, but in front of you – like a problem your “we” is looking to solve.

4. Invite the person to sit down with you. You might ask the person receiving the feedback “Are you open to getting a little feedback?” or “Are you open to some comments on this?” This way, the person has a little buy in to the moment. They also have a chance to prepare how they want to receive it.

5. Wait before you pick up your fork. Look for emotional clues. Are they freaking out? Looking nervous? Angry? Defiant? Ask about what you’re noticing. Something as simple as “Are you okay?” might be good. Obviously, tone of voice is critical here. Make sure they are as comfortable at your table as possible.

Now, we’ve taken it apart. Of course, it happens more quickly and in the moment when we are ready to give feedback. But what’s important in leadership is to be conscious of these informal moments as they happen.

Ultimately, what we want from feedback is to create the best company we can produce. This means drafting and redrafting. Inventing and reinventing. The more we can do as leaders to have the folks on our teams separate their inner worth from their outer product (i.e. not take it personally), the more the company will benefit from the collaborative effort.

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