Language for giving and receiving effective feedback

We can all remember to “ask for feedback” and “end on a positive note”, but most of us are at a loss for how to translate broad advice into specific, thoughtful words.

Introduction

Feedback is a crucial element of learning. Yet, just the word “feedback” is enough to trigger anxiety in many people.

For most of my life, I too was anxious about both giving and receiving feedback. On the giving side, I was afraid of being too critical and demotivating the recipient. On the receiving side, I was afraid of being vulnerable or the focus of the feedback giver’s attention.

Most guidance on how to give and receive feedback centers around “things to do and things not to do”. While crucial points are highlighted, I think the existing guidance muddles the key to reducing feedback anxiety: language. We can all remember to “ask for feedback” and “end on a positive note”, but most of us are at a loss for how to translate broad advice into specific, thoughtful words.

In this post, I want to run through some specific phrasings that can be helpful when giving and receiving feedback. As a toy example, I’ll use feedback on squats to frame the discussion. (For those unfamiliar with the squat: it’s a popular exercise that requires careful attention to form for both beginners and advanced weightlifters. Because squat form is difficult to improve without external feedback, the exercise is representative of many types of feedback discussions.)

I’ll start by introducing TACOISL, a framework for giving feedback. Then, I’ll conclude with some tips for receiving feedback.

TACOISL

Let’s imagine that a friend just finished performing a squat in the gym, and we notice an opportunity to provide feedback. I propose the TACOISL model for organizing your next steps:

T hink
A sk
C ommunicate:
      O bservations
      I mpact
      S uggestions
L isten

I made up this (admittedly meaningless) acronym because I didn’t find existing models very actionable. Most famous among these: BOOST (Balanced, Observed, Objective, Specific, Timely), STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result), and SPIN (Situation Specifics, Personal Impact, Insight & Interpretation, Next Steps). Don’t get me wrong– they’re all thoughtful and worth reading. I just put up with a less clever acronym to capture a more actionable way to remember things.

Think

Before saying anything, think for a moment about what you want to communicate. You want to figure out what you saw (observations), why it matters (impact), and how it can be improved (suggestions). We’ll dive into the language for communicating these thoughts in a minute, but first we want to have it organized in our heads.

Our friend doing the squat generally did a solid job. We observe that his back was curved slightly inward, but his knees buckled in on the way up. The consequences are that his back is probably feeling good, but his knees might suffer down the road if that element of his form is not fixed. Our suggestion will be that he focus on keeping his knees pointed out throughout the entire squat, while also squatting a lighter weight.

Notice how I didn’t really create a target number of “positive” and “negative” observations. A popular technique for reducing feedback anxiety is to create a “feedback sandwich”, in which critical feedback is couched between two compliments. I don’t advocate this approach because it often distorts the recipient’s sense of how things are going. Later, we’ll show how the inclusion of suggestions for improvement and specific phrases reduces feedback anxiety without requiring that we artificially couch our messages. At this stage, it is simply important to be genuine in what we choose to communicate.

That said, don’t focus all of your thought on where things could’ve gone better. It is important to also communicate what went well in our feedback so that the recipient knows what not to change or even enhance.

Ask

Now we start the conversation by asking the recipient if they want to receive feedback. It’s important to ask because the recipient might not want it (for reasons we cannot control) or simply doesn’t have the time right now (in which case they’ll postpone). Good feedback conversations require at least a few minutes of one-on-one time.

The language we use to “ask” is important because it frames the rest of the discussion. We want to minimize anxiety while also taking some time out to communicate honestly in a safe environment. The appropriate language can vary, but because we’re usually on a friendly basis with the recipient, we can be more or less casual about it. In the case of our squatting friend, we can ask him one of the following after he catches his breath:

“Hey, are you interested in some feedback?”
“Are you looking for pointers on your squats?”
“Do you want some quick suggestions to improve?”

These may seem like simple questions. But notice how they emphasize asking about the recipient’s willingness to receive feedback. It creates a safer environment than saying “Hey, I have some feedback to share” or “I had some thoughts about your squats”. The recipient should say “yes” because they want to improve, not because they feel obligated to hear our opinion. If they say “no” or postpone, that’s totally fine!

Also, consider using “pointers” or “suggestions” instead of the word “feedback” to reduce the recipient’s anxiety. Many people respond warmly to these alternatives, whereas “feedback” makes them anxious.

Communicate Observations

Good feedback begins with observations. These points can be complimentary or critical, but it’s crucial that we refrain from drawing inferences about why they happened. We can speak only from where we stand, so we have to be careful not to jump to conclusions about the recipient’s perspective. Let’s return to the squat example. The observations we communicate are:

“Your back looked great on the way down– really straight, with a slight arch inwards. On the way up, I think your knees buckled in a little bit.”

Notice the dedication to facts over inferences. It would be less effective to say “Your knees buckled because you probably couldn’t handle this amount of weight.” Even though the knees most likely buckled because of the weight, saying it at this stage doesn’t really advance the feedback conversation. In addition, we use language like “looked” and “I think” to emphasize that we’re just one perspective for the recipient to consider.

The observations suggested above mentioned what went well (straight back, slight arch). It’s good to do this to reinforce the recipients’ confidence in what they’re doing right. On the off-chance they did it by accident, at least now they’re aware it’s a good thing!

As I mentioned earlier in the Think section, the most important consideration here is that we’re honest and straightforward. If you do end up presenting the observations in “feedback sandwich” order, there are some things you can do to maximize the chances your words come across as genuine. First, refrain from using “but” to segue from the complimentary to the critical feedback. The word is almost like a harbinger of demotivating sentences. Instead, use “and” or simply continue communicating observations, as in the squatting example above. Second, try “physically” counting off your observations on your fingers. Somehow in my personal experience I find that people respond warmly to this because it indicates that the observations were genuinely thoughtful, and that the compliments weren’t just drawn off-the-cuff to couch the critical feedback.

Communicate Impact

Oftentimes overlooked, discussing impact is a useful way to make your suggestions persuasive and more likely to be adopted by the recipient. The goal here is to explain the consequences of the observations we made in the previous section. To our squatting friend we might say:

“I used to do that a lot when getting started. Then, Lindsay told me that buckling the knees creates instability and can also lead to knee problems down the road.”

With regards to language, these few sentences are effective for a number of reasons. First, we empathize with the recipient by revealing that we used to have the same problem. Because we opened up and made ourselves vulnerable, the recipient feels less anxious because he realizes that he’s not alone. Second, the knowledge about impact is communicated along with how that knowledge was acquired (learned from Lindsay). Doing so sets the tone that both the feedback giver and recipient are just two people who are constantly learning and improving.

The Impact section is also where you should mention impact on other people, if relevant. It’s not so relevant with squatting, but imagine an example where a colleague speaks out too frequently at meetings. The impact there is that other team members don’t have an opportunity to communicate their opinion. You might also mention your own perspective, if relevant, with phrases like:

“I’m worried that this will lead you to…”
“From my perspective what will happen is…”
“I think there’s a chance that…”

Communicate Suggestions

Finally, we want to end by communicating suggestions for how to improve on the critical observations made previously. To our squatting friend, we might say:

“Why don’t you try squatting a lighter weight until your knees don’t need to buckle on the way up? I also find that focusing on one element of form at a time helps me to gradually improve my squat.”

In communicating our suggestions, we prefer to make suggestions over commands. Whether the suggestions are acted on is completely up to the recipient, and we shouldn’t be offended if they aren’t. A good language technique to use here is to phrase the suggestion as a question:

“Why don’t you try…?”
“Have you considered…?”
“What do you think about…?”

It’s important for the suggestions to also be actionable. They should be specific enough that the course of future action is clear.

Closing our remarks with suggestions is a more effective alternative to the “feedback sandwich”. We don’t have to make a compliment to end the comments on a positive, forward-looking note. Suggestions also serve to help open up a conversation.

Listen

After communicating our part, it’s crucial that we now listen to the recipient. Perhaps we misunderstood their perspective, or maybe they would like to hear more feedback. To open the discussion we might ask: “What are your thoughts?”, “How do you see things?”, or “How do you feel about it?”

Receiving Feedback

Fortunately, the language on the receiving end is not as complex, but it is certainly worth examining.

It starts by making others aware that we’re open and looking for feedback. Before the squat, my friend might say:

“Hey, would you mind checking out my squat form? I’m always looking for ways to improve.”

It’s as simple as that. If an opportunity to ask does not arise before the event, the recipient can open by saying: “What can I do to make it better?” or “How can I improve?” The crucial thing to remember here is that we open the discussion effectively. Simply asking “Do you have any feedback?” or “How did I do?” tends to result in “No” or “Great!” as responses. Making the question more specific with the language described above facilitates richer conversations.

After listening to the giver’s opinion, it’s important to thank them for their feedback:

“Thanks for sharing your feedback, by the way. I really appreciate your thoughts.”

Not only does the giver feel good, but also we communicate openness to receiving feedback in the future.

Closing Thoughts

Giving and receiving feedback is never easy. But good language can help us to communicate feedback in a genuine, effective way. I’ll caveat my post by saying that I’m not a psychologist or MBA professor; the above comments are simply from my personal experiences. As with all suggestions, you should adjust the suggested language to fit your style and the situation. For what it’s worth, I hope this guidance makes feedback conversations just a little easier.

If you liked this post, I suggest checking out the following books:

Thanks to Sneha Saha for reviewing an earlier draft of this post and drawing the “feedback sandwich”.


Life ⋅ November 2014

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