In my college career, I’ve interned at four companies, camp counseled in Switzerland, worked in project teams at CERN, and led multiple student organizations. Across these experiences, I’ve interacted with individuals representing almost 60 different countries. In every single one of those organizations, the qualities that were most indicative of success were teamwork and communication.
Despite the fact that everyone already knows this(!), people in every vertical and every sector of society struggle to communicate with their teammates. In this post, I am going to focus on feedback, a key element of these issues, and share the tips I’ve learned to make feedback routine and easy to give. We all know feedback is important, but it’s also hard to give. These tips have helped me, as an intern, to comfortably have deep and productive conversations with several of my bosses, teammates, and in one case CEO and CTO.
Part 1: One on One Feedback Tricks
Alright, you’re in a position where you know what feedback you would like to give. You aren’t giving it out of anger, but a genuine desire to improve the other person. This is important. You aren’t here to make the other person feel bad. Now, you just have to initiate the conversation and give the feedback. But that can be uncomfortable. These tips will help.
Each tip performs well on its own, but all must be used together for maximum power. I will demonstrate by giving feedback to an arrogant (and imaginary) male teammate named Alex. For each tip, I will give an example of how to use it, and at the end I will put them all together.
Tip #1: Start with the magic words, “Hey, can I give you some feedback?”
This is by far my favorite tip. I always start these sessions this way. Say it with a friendly tone and it will really defuse the tension so you can both be more comfortable. Plus, it gets the receiver mentally ready for what is to come. After all, this isn’t always easy. Some of my other favorite ways of saying this (choose based on how informal you want to be or what fits the context):
- “Hey Alex, are you open to some feedback?”
- “Would it be cool if I gave you some feedback?”
- “Hey, can we have a feedback session? I’m looking for ways to improve myself and had some ideas for you as well” (really like this one… acknowledges that you aren’t perfect either)
If being uncomfortable is the hardest part of feedback, this is a great first step to alleviate that problem.
This is better, but clearly not that good. In fact, it almost sounds like you pretended to be nice at first, and still comes across as confrontational. We will build our way towards feedback that works, but this is the first step.
Tip #2: Give the other person permission to disagree or say no to a request.
“So, I could be wrong about this, but I feel like...”
“It’s okay if you disagree with this, but I wanted to say something because this is how it’s been coming across to me”
“I completely understand if you say no to this. But I am asking if I can [insert request here]. The reasons I want this are [honest and fair reasons for why you are asking]”
This is a tip I use both in feedback and when I’m making a request that I know someone might not be immediately open to. It acknowledges the other person’s feelings and that you know you might be making the other person uncomfortable. It communicates that you are on their side and you understand what they're feeling.
In the case of feedback, it’s all about relieving that tension so people can let their guard down and really be open to something about themselves or their behavior that they may not like. In the case of making a request, it let’s people relax a little bit. When they’re relaxed (from you giving them permission to say no), they’re more likely to actually consider your reasoning for making a difficult request. In practice, I found that not only are people more likely to grant your request, but they tend to like and respect you more.
Tip #3: Criticize behavior, not people.
Here’s what I mean. What sounds better?
In the top statement, it is likely that Alex may get angry right away as you have criticized his identity. He may immediately retaliate before you can explain further, or simply shut down and not listen to the rest of what you have to say.
In situation 2, you criticized Alex’s behavior, not Alex. It is a fine distinction, but makes a world of difference. It will feel less like an attack, and therefore Alex will be more open to listening and considering your words.
Even if Alex is, in fact, an arrogant person, Alex will likely respond better to the feedback from #2. This method recognizes that one or even a few actions does not define who a person is.
Tip #4: Do not speak in absolutes, unless you are certain what you are saying is the truth.
Even when utilizing the above tips, speaking in absolutes could still cause issues. Here’s why: just because you perceived another person’s actions in some way, it doesn’t mean that that is how they meant them. Further, speaking in absolutes has an insidious subtext that you believe what you are saying is true, and it doesn't matter what the other person thinks.
To make what you are saying true, without a doubt, just begin your statement with the words “I feel” or another similar phrase.
Your feeling is indisputable.
Tip #5: Putting it all together
None of the above tips, on their own, will make you into a feedback master. What will, though, is using combinations of these tips and using them all regularly.
Let’s assume you have already used tip #1 and received permission to give feedback. Here’s a demonstration of what could happen next, using each tip from above.
There we go, now that is effective feedback! Here’s why:
- It doesn’t attack the receiver and put them on the defensive
- The giver has acknowledged the receivers’ feelings
- The giver has acknowledged that the receiver’s opinion may be different
- The giver has acknowledged that the receiver’s opinion could be the correct one (or that the truth is somewhere between both of their perceptions of the situation)
- The giver has only told indisputable truth (the giver has presented their perception as their perception, which therefore must be truth)
The reality of using these techniques is that they do not apply to all situations. They do a great job, however, of easing tension and creating an environment where both parties can be comfortable identifying their flaws and improving themselves. And THAT is what everyone wants! Improved performance for themselves and the teams that they are on.
Part 2: A Feedback System
At Spatial.ai, after much deliberation, we came up with a system we follow to make feedback as routine as possible. It’s called PETAL.
P: Proactive-- It’s on you. If you notice a way that someone else could improve, go tell them. Further, ask others for how you could improve.
E: Empathetic-- Consider the emotions, opinions, and thoughts of the other person.
T: Timely-- Give feedback within a day of noticing the specific instance.
A: Assume (good intentions)-- Assume the other person has good intentions and their motivation is the success of the team.
L: Listen-- If you are receiving feedback, listen. Don’t respond or argue back immediately. Take time to reflect on the feedback.
All of the tips discussed here today fit into the ideas summarized in PETAL. I believe the most important consideration is to, unless presented with strong evidence to the contrary, assume good intentions. When both sides of a feedback session keep this thought in their mind, they will be able to more easily communicate and learn.
Consider using these tips when giving feedback yourself, or telling a team you are on about this framework for feedback.