What people call ‘constructive criticism’ I call improvement feedback. I always hope that the feedback is requested, and my hope springs eternal. But the truth is that people will often give feedback as if they are compelled to do so.
“You know what you should have done (should do next time)?”
“What would have really worked better is if you had —“
“What were you thinking? That was awful.”
I’m pretty sure that providing an opinion that sounds more like disapproval than appreciation is not seen as helpful. The reason I use the term improvement feedback in my work with Clients is because the giver is offering a way to improve the outcome, process, action or methodology used.
Because the hope is that the feedback is intended to help and teach rather than hurt and discourage, it’s often best to say “Thank you for your feedback.” The truth is that there are times when the response on the tip of the tongue is “I didn’t ask you!”— Even when the person offering the feedback is the boss.
In reality, I have observed that people rarely ask for feedback as often as others like to give it! If we waited for people to ask us for feedback, we might never be in a position to offer our opinions or observations!
Principles of Feedback
Two major principles govern the use of feedback.
- The first relates to how feedback is conducted and it can be paraphrased “I can’t tell you how you are, and you can’t tell me what I see.” In other words, the person giving the feedback is responsible to tell the situation as they observe it, and the person receiving the feedback is responsible for describing what he meant, felt, or thought.
The point of giving feedback is not to judge the other person, but to report what was seen and heard and what the effects of the behavior were. Personal approval or disapproval, even if important, is secondary.
It is never a requirement to apologize for giving improvement feedback. Still, improvement feedback should be given in a way that does not endanger the receiver’s dignity and sense of self-worth. It is sometimes helpful to offer an interpretation of the behavior or a hunch about what the behavior might suggest. What is of main importance is that the interpretation be offered as a suggestion and never as a judgment or a clinical evaluation of the person. Only the receiver is capable of putting it into a meaningful context. For example, you might say, “When Chester showed you the mistake that you made; you told him it was none of his business. I wonder if you were mad at Chester for some other reason.” This statement shows the receiver the behavior and allows him/her to consider a possible cause for that behavior.
While most people realize that giving feedback correctly requires skills and awareness, they are less aware of the importance of knowing how to receive feedback. When receiving feedback, most people tend to argue about, disown, or attempt to justify the information. Statements like “I didn’t say that”, “That’s not what I meant”, and “You don’t understand what I was trying to do,” are attempts to convince the person giving the feedback that he didn’t see or observe what he claims. The recipient needs to understand that the observer – whether boss, peer, friend, relative, or employee – is relating what she experienced as a result of the receiver’s behavior. There is nothing wrong with having different viewpoints. The purpose of feedback is to give a new view or to increase awareness. So a good all purpose response to receiving feedback, even when it is not solicited might be “Thanks. You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
- The second principle is that feedback supports growth. It is given to help, not to hurt.
The purpose of feedback is to help the recipient (not to make the giver feel superior or unburdened). When people have had enough information, they should call a halt to feedback input! Attempting to absorb all the feedback that might be available, or from the many people who would like to give it, is like forcing food into a full stomach.
The receiver is responsible for demanding specificity in feedback. No feedback should be accepted as 100% legitimate if it cannot be clearly demonstrated by an observable behavior. For example, if someone says, “You’re very arrogant,” a suitable response would be “What exactly have I said or done to cause you to think that?” If that response is countered with “I don’t know; I just experience you that way,” then the accusation should be immediately forgotten. People cannot afford to change just to meet everyone’s personal likes or expectations.
In fact, I have found that it is impossible to change to meet everyone’s expectations, and the situation becomes compounded as more and more people give the feedback. A single act can generate disparate feedback from different people who observe the behavior. Feedback requires action from both the giver and the receiver. Only the giver can tell what he observed or experienced, and only the recipient can use the information in deciding whether or not to change the behavior.
This second principle is important, because we can’t always see ourselves as others see us. Even if a person may be the foremost authority on him/herself, there are still parts of the individual that are more obvious to others. Although people may be more aware of their own needs and capabilities and more concerned about their own welfare than other people are, they are able to stretch themselves and grow if they pay attention to feedback from others.
Although feedback can be extremely uncomfortable at the time, the receiver may look back later and realize that the feedback was the spark that inspired the change that turned his/her career or personal life in a different direction. If the feedback is not rejected or avoided, receivers can discover and develop ways to work that they did not know were available.
If you are the recipient of unsolicited feedback, I hope it’s given well. If it’s delivered badly, I hope you can simply say ‘Thank you. I need some time to think about what you’ve said,” rather than defend, deny, or explain. If you find that you don’t really want to hear unsolicited feedback, let me know if you actually suggest that a better time for you to hear feedback or advice is when you’ve requested it. I’ve thought about delivering that response, but I’ve never actually done it.
I worry about the unsolicited feedback and advice I’d get about it!