Three Tips for Giving, Receiving, and Asking for Feedback in a Socially Distanced World

Author of Feedback Fundamentals shares her advice for thriving in the new world of work

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In this unique era of humanity we have all had to adjust to new and often awkward ways of interacting. Whether it’s fumbling our way through Zoom, talking through plexiglass or shouting from across the street the way we now communicate has dramatically impacted how we connect with and learn from one another.

One of the most powerful tools for learning is the way in which we give and receive feedback. Let’s face it, even in good times feedback conversations are challenging. So, adding physical distancing, social isolation and new technology to the mix doesn’t make it any easier. Or, does it?

To take a deeper dive on this I reached out to Brodie Riordan, PhD, an industrial/organizational psychologist, executive coach, and author of the newly-released Feedback Fundamentals and Evidence-Based Best Practices. Dr. Riordan is on a personal mission to shift the way people think about and approach feedback.

Dr. Woody: First of all, what is feedback and why does it matter? 

Brodie Riordan: Feedback is valuable information that tells you about yourself and your behavior relative to goals, expectations, and the world around you. We usually think about feedback that is provided by other people (e.g., a manager, customer, parent, coach, etc.) but feedback can also be self-generated (e.g., your inner monologue!) and also come from our environment (e.g., a scale, speedometer, wearable tech). Without feedback we would be living in a vacuum, unaware of how our behavior affects other people and whether or not we are moving toward our goals. 

DrW: What are some myths about feedback? One example I often come across is the dreaded feedback sandwich!

BR: Oh the feedback sandwich – leaving people confused and anxious for decades. I would love for people to let go of the feedback sandwich, where you start by sharing positive feedback, then share something critical, and end with positive feedback. This experience leaves people feeling confused and unclear about the issue and what they need to do about it. It also conditions people to anticipate negative feedback following any positive feedback, which undermines the value of positive feedback. I wish that people would be more generous and more specific with positive feedback. The more we give specific, positive feedback, the more likely people will be to accept and use critical feedback when we need to deliver it. Next time you find yourself simply saying “great job” or withholding praise, let the other person know what they did well and why it mattered. Knowing our strengths and effective behaviors is just as important (if not more so!) than knowing what we did wrong and what behaviors we need to change.

DrW: What is different about giving and receiving feedback in this COVID-era remote work environment?

BR: One advantage of remote working that I’ve noticed in the last few months is that people are using video calls more often, as opposed to just being on the phone. While research shows that in-person feedback conversations are the preferred medium, video conferencing is a close second because you can see each other’s facial expressions and body language. Any feedback that may elicit a strong emotional reaction – be that positive or negative – is going to be more effective when you can see the other person’s full reaction, not just hear their words. Another advantage of having virtual conversations is that you can more easily have notes next to you, get yourself mentally prepared for the conversation, and decompress from the conversation in private. The flip side of that is after a challenging feedback conversation you hang up your video call and there you are alone in your house, or maybe immediately moving on to another Zoom call where you need to “show up” in a particular way. This is another reason why leaving some buffer between video calls is important – you need time to mentally pause, reflect on your last call, and “reset” your mind for what’s next.

DrW: What are some tips for giving, receiving, and asking for feedback?

How to Give Feedback

BR: Make sure any feedback that you give – positive, negative, mundane, or high-stakes – always focuses on behavior, not the person. It’s much easier to change your behavior than it is to change who you are as a person. People are more likely to get defensive or not know what to do with feedback that focuses on them as a person. You might be surprised to learn that this rule applies to BOTH positive and negative feedback.

How to Receive Feedback

BR: Recognize that emotions are faster than cognition. You are hard-wired to have rapid emotional reactions, and cognition takes some time to catch up. This is why you often hear the advice to count to 10 before reacting when you are angry. You cannot extract the full meaning and value out of feedback until you’ve had a chance to mindfully process it. So, if you find yourself in a situation where someone gives you critical feedback, notice that you may be having an immediate emotional reaction. Take a moment to pause, take a breath, and give rational thinking time to catch up. You can always response by saying “Thank you for this feedback. I need a little time to process it. Can I catch up with you again later today?”

How to Ask for Feedback

BR: Proactively asking for feedback is an effective way to own your feedback experience, to increase the likelihood you get useful and specific feedback, and to make it easier for the other person to respond. The more specific your question is, the easier it will be for people to provide you with specific and useful feedback. For instance, you could say to a colleague, “If we were to do this project all over again, what is one thing you suggest I do differently to be more effective?”  

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