I’ve been giving feedback as long as anybody can remember. Famously, I offered my kindergarten teacher a pointer on how to organize her classroom on the first day of school; at pickup time, Mom was told that “Colin has a lot of ideas.”
Less humorously, my brothers’ refrain growing up was “You’re not the boss of me!” And they had a point.
However naturally criticism came as a hobby, the past few months of providing feedback professionally have challenged me to hone my craft. Here are some early learnings:
- Open mindfully. Especially in writing. With snippet views and messages that might be read hours or days after they’re sent, it’s all too easy to provoke a fear reaction by launching straight into critique. The time it takes to begin with the person’s name and a genuine, specific compliment is worth it.
- Make it specific. “Great work!” and “This stinks!” are equally unhelpful. How? Why? By what standard? “I really appreciated the clarity and flow of your language, but I couldn’t understand the image on slide four” — now you’re talking.
- Take a coaching approach. Point-by-point criticism has its place, and it’s rare. In general, it’s more likely to miss the point by overwhelming the recipient. If it matters enough to give feedback, it matters enough to take the time to focus on one or a few key concepts. Highlight those, ask an open-ended “what?” question, and really listen for the answer. When in doubt, say less.
- Timing and medium matter. There are things I can by typing that I can’t do live, and there are many other things I can do live that I can’t do by typing. Know and understand the technical and social advantages and disadvantages of your medium, and craft your message accordingly.
- Close with encouragement. Chances are excellent that you’ll never see your two-star Lyft driver again. Chances are even better that you’ll see your coworker, classmate, student, friend, or family member tomorrow. Unless the point of your “feedback” is to end the relationship, it’s worth closing in a spirit of possibility. Beating people down doesn’t bring them back. Nor does it generally make them more effective or affectionate.
Giving feedback is usually a sign that you’ve got a lot of ideas. Just remember their value might be more immediately obvious to you than to the recipient. If you want to make things better by sharing your ideas, it’s worth sharing them wisely.