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Feedback Article

Don’t Be Afraid of Feedback

What comes to mind when you hear the word feedback? Does the mention of the word make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end? Do you think of feedback as business speak for unbridled criticism that annoys you and undermines your confidence?

I have learned from working in various organizations over the past 25+ years that feedback is a word nobody wants to hear. Why? Because people associate it with “I’ve done something wrong.” I’d like to suggest that you consider a mind shift: feedback and listening are gifts that you can easily add to your toolkit! You might be wondering how…

Early in my career, I had the pleasure of working at the National Training Laboratories for the Behavioral Sciences (now known as the NTL Institute). NTL is a pioneer in the business of training and development, with a focus on learning more about your own behavior and how it impacts others. Feedback was an integral part of the day-to-day operations at NTL as well as a constant activity in the training sessions we offered. During my time there, I learned to embrace the lessons that feedback provided. Whether the feedback was positive or I was asked to do something differently, someone was taking the time to share valuable information with me because they cared and wanted me to succeed.

Feedback gets a bad rap because most times it is used in a less than helpful way. Giving good feedback should be more than telling people what is wrong with their performance. Feedback is a helping tool that can provide the catalyst to improve personal and professional performance; it’s about providing guidance while also communicating to a person what you value and appreciate about them and their contributions.

As organizations continue to be flatter and their reporting structures become more complex, the ability to give and receive feedback skillfully is one of the characteristics that sets top performers (employees and managers) apart from their colleagues. A typical employee will need to give feedback to peers and even to the boss, and managers regularly give feedback “downward” to their direct reports. Feedback, if delivered well, can improve performance at all levels of an organization, can strengthen teams and relationships, and can decrease conflict because “irritations” are addressed before they get blown out of proportion.

Here are my recommendations for giving effective feedback:

  • What: Be specific. Give examples to support your comments. People may not understand what they’re doing without clear examples.
  • When: Timing matters. Give feedback as soon as possible—in the moment if appropriate, or as soon as you can speak to that person privately.
  • Why: Explain the consequences of the behavior. What is happening, or how are others being affected by the behavior?
  • How: Critique the behavior, not the person. No one wants to feel attacked.
  • Who: To whom can you give feedback? Anyone, so long as you approach it diplomatically and in the spirit of improvement.

What part does listening play in all this? Why can listening to feedback be a challenge?

As human beings, we are horrible listeners! We are wired to react seconds after someone speaks. Another factor that comes into play is that the brain can take in 600-800 words a minute and most people speak between 150-250 words per minute. The result? Our brain is looking for something to do!

Listening is an important skill. In his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” The ability to listen is a critical skill that impacts many aspects of our personal and professional lives. Being a better listener can increase our effectiveness in areas such as teamwork, decision-making, managing and supervising.

There are many external and internal barriers to listening that we need to manage to improve our listening skills, and some may be easier to manage than others. For example, noise, visual distractions, setting, boredom, close-mindedness and our feelings about the person speaking can affect our ability to listen well. We may have past conflicts with the speaker or maybe they are insincere or blunt.

There are also signs that a person is not listening effectively. When a person continues to use their laptop or smartphone while someone is speaking, or they bring up things already mentioned or discussed, you know you they’re not listening.

There are many best practices for listening well. Some of my favorite tips are:

  • Listen to understand and learn, rather than to defend or debate
  • Make eye contact with the person speaking
  • Wait to respond until after the person has finished his or her thought
  • Check for understanding by summarizing what you heard and by asking questions
  • Avoid multitasking.

So, the next time someone in your organization suggests a “feedback session” as part of a meeting or activity, embrace the process. Let the possibilities outweigh the fears and truly hear the feedback.

And remember, there is a reason you have two ears and one mouth: you are supposed to listen more and talk less!

Nanci Appleman-Vassil

Prior to establishing APLS Group in 2000, Nanci was a corporate training manager for R.H. Donnelley, the largest independent sales, marketing and publisher for the Yellow Pages industry. In this capacity, Nanci provided a full range of training and organization development services, including identifying, coaching and developing managers and other upper-tier employees to build a high-performance culture.

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