Does the Truth always hurt? The art of giving great feedback

We all know that telling the truth is the right thing to do. So why is it that there are some situations where it is so hard to just be honest? 

You know the ones I mean – when someone asks you for some feedback – How am I doing? What did you think of my speech? Why do I always seems to mess up? And they look at you with that look in their eyes and you think – do you REALLY want me to be honest here?

So you buckle up, you take a deep breath, and you try and give some honest feedback.  You start with the things you liked – just like you know you should (the good old ‘Feedback sandwich’) and then you move on to the hard bit – the ‘developmental feedback’.

But then you can see their face change, they’ve stopped smiling; they look concerned; and you just want to swallow your words.  So then you start to back track, to dilute your honesty and even start making-up good things to say about them so that you end up leaving them completely confused.  The worst of both worlds!

And yet – giving someone your honest feedback shows true respect for them.  If you are able to give someone some really good constructive feedback, it gives that person the opportunity to grow and develop.

So what can we do to get it right?

  • Give feedback that is based on facts not assumptions.  In other words tell them what behaviours you observed rather than your interpretation of those behaviours.  For example – rather than ‘you seemed very nervous when you were doing your presentation’, you could say ‘you spoke very quickly and you didn’t maintain eye-contact with anyone in the audience’.  This approach gives them something to work with so they know what to do to stop appearing nervous.
  • Don’t follow the positive with the word ‘but’!  As soon as you say ‘but ….’, all the good stuff you’ve said previously disappears out of their mind and they are just waiting for the negative comments.  Try following up the positive feedback with ‘and’ instead.  For example ‘I really like the way your presentation had a clear beginning, middle and end and to build on that, it might be helpful for your audience if you told them what you were going to cover in your talk right at the beginning’.
  • Remember the difference between ‘Criticism’ and ‘Feedback’.   Criticism is always negative and provides nothing constructive.  Feedback can be either positive or negative but provides information or guidelines that allow the individual to develop – they have sufficient information to know what they need to do differently. (See above).
  • Aim to give more positive than negative feedback.  It’s generally more effective if people focus on getting even better at what they are already good at rather than over-focusing on what needs improving.  Help them to acknowledge and value what they already do well.

Giving good feedback is one of those skills that definitely gets better with practice, and when it’s done well, can leave the other person feeling positive and motivated, and you become the go-to person for an honest opinion.

However I do have just one note of caution – telling the truth can become addictive!