A recent study found that anxiety levels are nearly the same when receiving feedback as when giving feedback. The stress of giving feedback stems from feeling corned by a lose-lose proposition. The boilerplate wisdom that may have served us well in our younger years — “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” — has led us as adults to believe that our options are either to be muzzled and nice or honest but mean.
“There’s a strong culture of being very nice to people, and it’s hard to be critical of someone in those conditions,” said Tessa West, the New York University psychologist who led the study cited above. “How good is the feedback going to be if the person feels this strong normative pressure to be nice during the interaction?”
The good news is that there’s a third way between mealy-mouthed “niceness” and brutal honesty. Honesty doesn’t have to be brutal any more than kindness has to be banal. Most people actually want honest feedback. Try Googling “how to get honest feedback” and the magnitude of hits paints a clear picture: Folks are desperate to hear the truth.
Here are three ways to be honest without being devastating.
Offer before dishing it out
It’s generally best to first ask someone if she or he would like your feedback before jumping straight to delivering it. The other person’s response to your offer can clarify if the context is right for your feedback to be productively received.
And if the other person accepts your offer, don’t try to take over the driver’s seat. Unless you’re the undisputed expert among your friend group or co-workers on the topic, your starting posture should be deference to the would-be feedback recipient. This honors the thought-work that your friend has already done, whether it’s the trip itinerary your travel partner is proposing or the presentation slides your colleague previewed for you.
For example, you might say something like: “Thanks for sharing the draft of your talk with me. If you’d be up for talking further, I’d love to hear more about your research process and I could share my own initial response to it if you’d like.” Being on the receiving end of feedback often puts people on the defensive, so a graciously phrased offer gives them a moment to consider if they’d like feedback without jolting them into fight-or-flight mode.
Generic feedback — whether positive or negative — rarely registers as helpful. Rattling off a quick “nice job” to a member of your team after a big presentation while bee-lining it to the exit telegraphs some combination of the following:
You were so long winded that I’m about to lose control of my bladder;
I wasn’t really paying attention to anything you just said;
I’m as uncomfortable about giving you feedback as you looked while giving
Instead, be specific when offering feedback. Rather than a pro-forma “you did great,” identify and articulate a particular aspect of a friend’s artwork or a co-worker’s report that piqued your interest. Concrete praise not only is more affirming, it can also help spark further ideas for an even stronger final outcome.
The same holds true for constructive criticism. A blanket dismissive comment can come off as a personal attack and it doesn’t give any direction for improvement. In keeping with the point above about offering rather than dishing out feedback, constructive feedback is often best framed as a question rather than an unsolicited solution.
For example, “I wonder what adding more salt would do for the dish?” or “Have you already considered checking FedEx’s ground rate?” Posing suggestions as questions has the added benefit of preventing you from looking foolish (maybe your idea was version 1.0 and they’re already on version 9.0) while also giving the other person a chance to share what she knows.
A good rule of thumb in sharing feedback is to name at least one positive alongside suggestions for improvement. As I often tell the graduate students that I’m training to grade assignments, there’s always something to affirm as well as something to challenge. This doesn’t mean we have to hold ourselves to the formulaic “affirmation sandwich” — buffering one critical comment between two slices of affirmation — which can come off sounding predictable and insincere. But keep in mind that constructive criticism will land more softly and have a better chance of taking root when there is a foundation of trust.
Finally, as with all offers, offering feedback means leaving it to the other person to decide what to do with the suggestions we’ve given. If the other person doesn’t adopt all our ideas, brilliant though they may be, we don’t need to take it personally. Or on the flip side, if our advice-recipient energetically turns our suggestions into a smashing success, let the other person enjoy the credit while you savor the satisfaction of a midwife who was in the right place at the right time to witness something beautiful coming into the world.