Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

8 helpful tips on giving feedback that really makes a difference


When did you last give someone feedback? Useful, constructive, positive feedback that could improve your relationship with them, or help them do their job better?

Feedback is a scary topic. The subject of many management training sessions in the workplace, and at the same time, one of the things we’re (particularly in the uber-polite, sometimes slightly passive aggressive UK) most challenged by.

Most people I work with hate both giving and receiving feedback. Feedback is often used as a weapon or a defence mechanism in our relationships: “I hate the way you never do the ironing!” or even a political tool in organisations.

But everybody suffers when problems are repressed or hidden under the carpet. When an under-performing team member isn’t given feedback and the opportunity to improve, the whole team’s performance drops, as well, often, as their motivation, as they see one member being paid the same for lower quality work. And in a relationship, when feedback is held back for fear of upsetting the other person, it can all come out later in a flood, unplanned and so much more devastating than a quick conversation sharing thoughts and feelings.

I’ve put a list of tips together here based on my own experience, but I do understand they can be tough to implement. The tips are just as applicable at home as in the workplace, and used appropriately and judiciously (don’t give feedback every five minutes, it’s exhausting), can really make a difference.

1. Make it timely.

Don’t save up all the feedback for the quarterly (or worse, annual!) appraisal or review, or your next big argument if you’re at home. Offer the feedback as close to the event as possible so the individual knows what you’re talking about, and they have the opportunity to reflect on the behaviour while it’s still fresh in their mind. One note on this is to be wary of offering feedback during an event. For example, giving someone feedback on how to enhance a presentation in the interval of their speech may distract them rather than help them. At home, feedback on driving when driving is one I would suggest you tend to avoid!

2. Give them one piece of feedback at a time.

If your feedback’s timely, you’re likely to avoid making the mistake of flooding the person with feedback – it’s those who save feedback up who are more likely to ‘dump’ a ton of feedback on the individual all at once. This isn’t effective because human beings can only process a certain amount of information at once – they will inevitably pick one or two pieces of feedback from the mass of information, and what they zero in on may not be the feedback you consider most critical.

3. Be specific.

Provide a specific example of the behaviour. This helps the individual to understand what it is they need to do to improve, rather than floundering in generalities. So, don’t say: “You need to improve your presentation skills.” Say: “Your presentations would benefit if you looked at the audience and smiled more.” Rather than saying “You need to be tidier” say  “It would really help me feel happier in the home if you keep your papers in one place rather than all over the flat.”

4. Ensure the feedback is about the behaviour not the individual.

This helps to depersonalise feedback and makes sure the individual doesn’t feel the ‘core them’ is being attacked. So avoid: “You’re not a people person,” and try “I think you’d benefit from building more relationships with the sales team.” Instead of “You’re so messy and disorganised” try “I’d really appreciate it if you’d put your breakfast dishes in the dishwasher in the morning.”

5. Keep your feedback balanced.

This is a tricky one. My personal suggestion would be that you don’t try and give balanced feedback each specific time, but that overall, you try and balance the positive and the negative (or ideally, keep about a 3:1 ratio of positive to developmental feedback).

Here, the question of the ‘feedback sandwich’ arises – this is where you begin and end your feedback with positives, bookending or ‘sandwiching’ the negative between the positive. I have mixed views about the feedback sandwich, but when I recently expressed the view that some, more jaded staff members can see the negative feedback coming in these situations, a senior leader I was talking to reminded me that for more junior team members, the sandwich can still be really useful, and the positive feedback can feel really good.

In the home, we can tend to focus more on criticisms than praising the day-to-day good things our partners, families and friends do. Watch that you don’t only share the things you dislike about you friends’ and families’ behaviour, and that you do give them feedback about their strengths too “I love the way you bring me a cup of tea in the morning, no matter how grumpy I am.”

So, by all means, use the feedback sandwich – carefully.

6. Explain the impact of the behaviour.
This is helpful for the individual, as sometimes they may not understand why a particular piece of behaviour has got others hot and bothered. It can also be appropriate to share your feelings here. For example: “When you raise your voice in conversation with me, I feel uncomfortable and demotivated,” rather than: “I need you to stop shouting at me!”

7. Consider your reasons for giving the feedback.

A tough one this one, but worth thinking about. How altruistic are you in this situation? Will this feedback genuinely help this individual develop? Do they need to hear it? What are your motivations? Do you want them to succeed? Do you own the feedback, that is, did you see the behaviour happen? Or are you passing on secondhand feedback, in which case have you untangled ‘truth’ from opinion?

If you’re at home, is the thing you’re giving feedback about the real reason you’re giving the feedback? Sometimes we hide behind one piece of feedback when we’re unhappy about other issues. Think about your reasons and how it will help the other person, and your relationship with them.

8. Consider the individual’s personality traits (and your own).

Some people are naturally ‘thick-skinned’. It takes a lot to get through to them. Others are more delicate, and the merest hint will have them rushing away to work on their behaviour. Adapting your style to each will mean your feedback will be much more effective – you won’t crush the delicate flowers, and you’ll get through to those who are thick-skinned. And if you don’t know which they are, you can always ask them what works best for them in terms of them receiving feedback, which will give you some clues.

This is especially important in relationships. With people we’re close to, we know exactly what will trigger them, and sometimes we purposely give feedback in that style in order to get a rise. The best relationships have agreed ways of giving each other feedback, sharing issues and working through them.

What are your war stories around feedback?

When have you provided feedback and really seen it make a difference?

And when did you give feedback and it was like water off a duck’s back?!

4 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Amitayus September 18, 2014, 5:20 pm

    Such an important skill to have!! Thanks for your clear writing Ellen! LOVE!

    • Ellen September 18, 2014, 5:35 pm

      Thanks so much, so glad you liked it!

  • Christopher James October 3, 2014, 11:01 am

    Yep. Feedback makes a great impact so make sure you’re doing it right.
    Christopher James recently posted…free horse racing betting systemsMy Profile

    • Ellen October 6, 2014, 8:12 pm

      It definitely does – I’ve coached people who can remember back to their first ever feedback experience from a manager which has scarred them for life. So many people seem to do it badly!

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge