Feedback, Like Music, Shouldn't Hurt.

Key tips for giving and receiving effective feedback


By Morag Barrett - March 26, 2020

Attend any musical performance and feedback can be immediate, a broken string, an out of tune note, the performer knows it, the audience knows it. In the good-old-days when we were able to go outside (a.k.a. before Covid-19) I was up close and intimate with no less than 3 Stradivarii attending a chamber music concert performed by world class musicians. In the case of this performance my feedback was gushing, it was an amazing evening. However, I am sure that those musicians will still have reflected on the evening and provided feedback to each other, even before their rosin dust had settled. I hope that their feedback was as melodious as the music.

"One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain. - Bob Marley

Here's the thing, feedback gets a bad rap, and let's be honest, none of us really like getting feedback. Even the 'wow that was amazing' feedback can leave us feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable. Feedback maybe a fact of life, but it doesn't have to hurt.

Feedback doesn't have to hurt.

I was coaching a leadership team earlier this month in preparation for their company performance review process. Senior leaders with many year's experience who wanted to brush up their skills on feedback and coaching. Not just giving feedback, but also receiving feedback. Here are some of the key themes they shared:

Tips for Giving feedback

  1. Timely. Timeliness of feedback doesn't mean you have to give it in the moment, only that you provide it at a time when I can still do something to effect change. As a classical musician, if my intonation is off (and I play the bassoon, a notoriously difficult instrument to keep in tune) then telling me next week, after the performance, isn't going to help. Leaning over between movements to let me know allows me to make an immediate adjustment. Let's be clear, feedback that's only shared once a year at performance review time is not timely! It's a performance review, not a performance reveal!
It's a performance review not a performance reveal!
  1. Balanced. Feedback should not just focus on what a person needs to do better or more of but should also acknowledge what’s been done well. However, please don't deliver a literal feedback sandwich (good news, bad news, good news). I promise no one is listening once you get to the filling. Instead make sure your feedback is balanced over time.
  2. Delivered with good intent. The feedback is designed to help someone succeed and not to knock them down or make them feel bad. Essentially, if you're angry, frustrated or in any way in a bad mood, that is not the time to deliver effective feedback.
  3. Specific. "Great concert" is fine, vanilla feedback, it's disposable feedback - throw away comments that are hard to do anything with. Instead try to be specific, what's the feedback about, what behaviors did you observe, and what was the impact? "Thank you for a great concert. I particularly enjoyed the harmonies and the passion you created in the the second piece, which brought tears to my eyes!" (BTW it was Barber's Adagio for Strings which reminded me of my parents, hence the tears).
  4. Includes action and follow up. Effective feedback requires a clear action plan and follow up process that confirms the changes in behavior have been made and that expectations are being met. Don’t just ‘lob it over the fence’ and hope that they ‘get it.’

Tips for Hearing Feedback

  1. Ask for it! There's a 'virtuous circle' to be gained from feedback; the more you actively seek it out, generally the better the quality of feedback you receive, and give.
  2. Expect the Unexpected. When feedback is unexpected avoid arguing, justifying your position, or jumping to denial, it just makes the whole experience more challenging than it needs to be. Instead, breathe, count to 5, and in doing so you can marshal your thoughts and respond vs react. Remember that for the person who's providing the feedback, this is their experience, their interpretation and their reality... arguing with them will not change their minds, changing your behavior will.
  3. Seek the Grain of Truth. I've found that if feedback is bugging me getting a second opinion can provide balance and perspective, and uncover the 1% grain of truth in the message. Do I always interrupt others? No, but I know that my enthusiasm sometimes means I have a habit of cutting others off. Feedback can be a timely reminder of the old habits, or poor habits, that are holding me back.
  4. Say "Thank You". One of the most powerful things you can do when receiving feedback (positive or negative) is to pause and offer a simple "Thank you". This doesn’t mean you're agreeing or disagreeing with the feedback; it lets the other person know you've heard them.
  5. Choose your next steps. Feedback can be a gift allowing you to grow and develop however action is not a legal requirement, you can choose to ignore it. However, if you've received the same message before, or the feedback from more than one person, maybe now's the time to act.

What advice do you have for others who are entering their Performance Review process or need to be able to give and receive feedback? Share your thoughts in the comments, I'd love to hear from you.

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