Choose Your Words & Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Feedback
Giving feedback is a critical part of being a good leader. Scratch that. Giving feedback is a critical part of being a good person. But let’s face it, no one really enjoys giving feedback, no matter what they say.
So, let’s break it down. Here’s how you can master the art of feedback.
5 Tips for Giving Feedback
As human beings, we’re filled with worry. “Will they take this personally?” “Will they take this seriously?” “Will I get pushback?” “Will they hate me?” These are all questions that float around our heads before we hit send. We read article after article, listen to leadership podcasts, and add exclamation points at the end of every sentence to lessen the blow. But at the end of the day, feedback is feedback. You’re critiquing something another human being has devoted themselves to, and every word counts.
1. Keep It Clear and Keep it Concise
As a writer, I receive A LOT of feedback from fellow creatives, other departments, and clients. In fact, I start every single workday with a cup of coffee and revisions because feedback makes me better at my job. Well… it usually makes me better. Every so often, I’m faced with the most confusing comment of all time: ???
What the heck does that mean? I usually scratch my head, screenshot the paragraph in question, and then open a chat with my vague reviewer. After fishing for direction and questioning my abilities while watching their profile picture bob up and down as the type, they respond with clear and straightforward feedback. It’s almost as if we could’ve skipped over the last few steps entirely.
Now, I’m far from perfect and have left elusive comments a time or two myself — so I know how easy it is. But nothing can be fixed if no one knows how to fix it. If you’re giving feedback on someone’s work, and you come across a line you just aren’t vibing with, you have two options:
- “Not feelin’ this sentence.”
- “This sentence is wordy. Can we trim it down?”
This works with interpersonal feedback as well.
- “You seem off. Everything okay?”
- “You’ve missed a few deadlines, and participation has been low. Everything okay?”
Big difference, right? When someone knows exactly what you’re talking about, they’ll be more willing to address it. And you’ll save a little time in the long run. However, when giving specific feedback, it’s also important to…
2. Encourage Autonomy
It can be hard to relinquish power, especially in a professional setting. Take the reins yourself if you have a vision for a project or your department. Whenever you give feedback, remember that the point is NOT to make carbon copies of yourself, the point is to nurture growth.
Criticism means nothing if it’s not constructive. So, when giving feedback, take note of your phrasing, ideals, and demeanor. Ask yourself, “Is my feedback motivating or demoralizing?” If you lean towards the latter, make a change. After all, if you give a person a fish, they’ll eat for a day. If you teach a person to fish, they’ll feed themselves forever.
If you tell an employee exactly what to do, they will only ever do that. If you give an employee the tools to figure things out for themselves with a bit of guidance, they’ll improve.
3. Skip the Compliment Sandwich
We’ve all heard about the compliment sandwich. “Say something nice, give your critique, and then follow it up with a pat on the back.” Today, I ask the question: “WHY?!”
The compliment sandwich will result in one of two outcomes:
- The actual constructive feedback will get lost. If you give your employee a compliment sandwich, there’s a high chance that genuine feedback will get lost in translation. Maybe they only heard the two good things you said about them or didn’t realize the seriousness of your feedback because they were hyped up by your kind words. If you had been straightforward, the miscommunication might not have happened.
- The employee’s trust in you will be lost. If you give compliments every time you give hard feedback, your compliments will lose their luster. Employees may suspect that all your comments aren’t genuine and perceive you as fake. This can lead to toxicity, anxiety, and, ultimately, mistrust
It’s normal to want to be kind and comforting when giving feedback, and that empathy means you’re probably a good person. However, a compliment means nothing if insincere, so why waste the bandwidth? Make your point, and then call it a day!
4. Note the Time
Everyone, no matter their rank, deserves respect. A great way to be respectful is to respect a person’s time. If you have subordinates, giving feedback should always be a priority. If you have a one-on-one on your calendar, treat it with the same importance as a client meeting.
Always be cognizant of the time when giving feedback on a specific project. Ask, “When is this due?” and “How will my feedback impact this project?” The scope of every project should always be top of mind. Yes, you want every deliverable to be the best it can be. However, sometimes feedback can wait. Take a quick look at your notes to see if they are all necessary or if your cool ideas can be applied elsewhere later down the road
5. Explain Yourself
Giving every piece of the puzzle is essential to ensure someone truly benefits from constructive feedback. When giving feedback, the goal should always be to correct or encourage good behavior and perfect skill. So, simply deleting a sentence, changing color, or telling someone to “stop” will only act as a Band-Aid solution. If you want long-term change, give them something to chew on and a reason for the change.
- Can you adjust this sentence? There are too many prepositions.
- What if we change the yellow background? That often doesn’t look great in print
- Please only send important documents via email. It helps with version control.
See? The reasoning makes all the difference! And, fingers crossed, you’ll never have to give that feedback to the person ever again. After all, if you explain yourself well, you should only have to explain yourself once.
3 Tips for Receiving Feedback
Okay, so let’s say you’re on the other side of the conversation. Most professionals know how valuable feedback is and are more than willing to listen, even when it hurts. So, how do you take feedback like a champ? Here are three simplified tips.
1. Kill your Darlings
In college, I spent multiple nights crafting what I thought to be an award-winning screenplay. It was filled with all my favorite tropes, characters I loved, and a rich story that could bring anyone to tears… or so I thought. I proudly took my screenplay to class seeking approval from a respected professor who proceeded to remove my favorite character from the script entirely. I was crushed.
When I fought for the character, he looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Kill Your Darlings.” So, I had to make a decision. Ultimately, removing the character improved the story, and though I was disappointed, my original story thrived. It’s easy to get caught up on the little things you love. But if something isn’t working, it isn’t working. Know when you need to edit. This flows nicely into the next tip…
2. Remember the Big Picture
When you get feedback that feels harsh, take a deep breath, and take a step back. We’ve probably all had a moment in our careers when we worked hard on a small piece of the puzzle and then realized it didn’t fit in with the other parts. While that can be difficult, it’s far from the end of the world!
If you are working in a small area, whether personal improvement or project-focused, look at your end goal frequently and thoughtfully to ensure you’re on the right track. If you ever get feedback that seems harsh or causes a mass ripple, more than likely, it can be explained by looking at the big picture.
3. Don’t Take It Personally
If you only remember one thing from this post, let it be this. Feedback is not about you as a person. It’s about your performance. Feedback only fails if it’s not applied, often due to the receiver jumping to conclusions and getting defensive.
While feedback can sometimes feel like an attack, it’s probably not. If someone is taking the time to provide clarity and direction, it’s because they care, not because they hate you. So, count to ten, ask a lot of questions, and get back to it! Who knows, maybe something great will come from an otherwise hard conversation.
Feedback is a precious tool, arguably one of the most important you wield in a professional setting. Finding the delicate balance between criticism and productivity is critical in any professional setting. It will help every team member grow to new heights that are impossible to reach solo.
So, Feedback. Use it well. Use it often.