We’ve all had times where we’ve been given the “gift of feedback,” and it feels less like a present and more like being handed a flaming pile of garbage. 🔥 I remember one of those times like it was yesterday.
My manager was in the process of resigning, and my skip-level manager had taken me aside to share feedback.
“She’s resigning because of you.”
Taken aback, I just stared at him. He proceeded to detail the ways in which I had mismanaged my relationship with my manager.
He offered no solutions, no acknowledgment of my freely flowing tears, and no mention of his own role in the situation. He let me share my thoughts but asked no questions, and closed with “You need to fix this.”
🤦♀️ While I can’t say that he was my favorite boss, I also can’t fault him too deeply for his approach to sharing feedback. He was following a pretty standard playbook: Don’t get emotional, be clear and concise with the facts, and hold the other person accountable to changing.
And while that’s a common approach to feedback, it’s frequently ineffective and can even be harmful.
Why feedback should be a two-way conversation
Feedback is often described as something we give or deliver to another person. We try to optimize our delivery of the feedback, making it a compliment sandwich or collecting data from others to support our point.
This lens on feedback means that after we deliver the feedback, our job is done. Now, it’s the other person’s job to make changes and fix the problem.
But no one feels good in that situation. The recipient suddenly has a problem they didn’t know they had. 😬 And you no longer have agency in being part of the solution—you’ve given the problem away, so if it’s solved in a way that you didn’t expect or in a way that makes things worse, you’ll be stuck with trying to give feedback again.
Instead of trying to deliver your feedback more clearly, shift your whole mindset. Make feedback a collaborative process.
As Brene Brown shares in her feedback checklist, you’re ready to give feedback when you’re ready to sit beside the other person — not across from them. In other words, feedback is about working together to find a solution. It’s not about me vs. you or about handing off a problem. 🤝
Through this lens, suddenly it’s my role not just to make sure you understand my feedback but also to understand how you feel and what you see about the problem. We work together to find a solution, which means we both feel agency and support.
How to make the feedback conversation productive
When you approach feedback as a collaborative conversation, it changes what you do. It’s less about refining your message or being prepared for conflict and more about engaging your sense of curiosity and empathy.
Find the right time
Sometimes, feedback can feel urgent. Like you need to schedule a meeting now to talk about it, or your next one-on-one has to cover this. And while this might work out ok, you may also catch your teammate at a particularly difficult time for them.
Maybe they didn’t sleep well this week, or they’re dealing with a sick child or parent, or they’re sprinting to meet a deadline. 😰
Even though delivering feedback may feel urgent, don’t rush it.
When you’re planning feedback, take into account the broader context and try to find a time where your teammate will be at their best and most receptive. Sharing feedback when someone isn’t able to hear it is the same as not sharing it at all.
Start with questions
It’s tempting to enter a feedback conversation with a bullet point list of what you want the other person to know. After all, the whole point is that you know something they don’t, right?
Well, no. The problem with this attitude is that it overlooks everything you don't know about a situation. It can be easy to get caught up in the problem you see and lose track of the fact that there are other viewpoints and additional context you may not have. Just think of a time where someone critiqued your work but they didn’t really understand what your goal or your constraints were.
That’s why you should always start feedback with questions and a true sense of curiosity.
Some good starting questions are:
- How are you doing?
- How do you think we’re doing with this project?
- How are you feeling about that goal?
- Are you facing any challenges with your work? If so, how can I help?
- How do you think we’re working together? Do you have any feedback for me?
One thing to watch out for is using leading questions to try to guide the conversation to make a point. This is where curiosity comes in. As you ask questions, keep an open mind. Try not to guess the answers or predict what the other person will say. Even if you’re right, you’ll be distracted and miss what the other person is sharing and feeling.
It's okay to be emotional
Getting angry, tearing up, or withdrawing into silence are all normal reactions to getting or giving feedback. You don’t need to use a flat, robot voice to share feedback with someone.
In fact, it’s important for you to share how you feel. You just need to be clear with yourself and with the other person on what your feelings are vs. what actions they took. Using the formula, “I feel x when you do y” is a simple but easy way to be clear about the distinction between these two things. (Just make sure you don’t say things like “I feel like you’re an asshole when…” that’s not a feeling. 😉 Check out this list of feelings to help you articulate yourself next time.)
And on the flip side, if the recipient gets emotional—defensive, angry, sad, hurt—that’s okay too. This is where being collaborative is important. It’s your role to help them process, to give them time and space, and to be present when they’re ready to talk about finding a solution.
Feedback that moves us forward
A culture based on feedback is a hallmark of highly effective teams. All of us want to do our best at work, and we can’t do that without support from our teammates. Treating feedback as a collaborative conversation will help you and your team share feedback more frequently and make positive changes more often. 🙌