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How to Give Feedback to Anyone

Now that people are back at work, school, voluntary commitments, I thought I’d post this advice from a few years back:

A team member, working on a project with me years ago, had seen me give feedback to others.  She noticed that I always pointed out ‘the positives’ before getting to what needed improvement, and especially so if the critique took place in a group-setting.

One day, she told me: “If you ever have to give me feedback, just get to the bad stuff first. Please don’t spend a lot of time telling me what’s great: it’s the bad stuff I need to know about.”

So there came a time when I had to identify a few things she needed to improve. I respectfully pointed them out, specifically and without identifying the positives upfront.

It meant I’d compromised my own leadership principles to give her what she’d said she wanted.

But she felt deeply hurt.

~~

Praise matters. Everyone I’ve ever met wants to know what they’ve done well. The fact that you noticed it, the fact that you value it, matters. Praise matters. 

Praise opens up a door for the recipient to hear and absorb your suggestions about weaknesses in their work. This is especially true for work that is very personal or tasks someone has laboured over.

Honest praise matters even more than criticism of weaknesses.  Giving honest, specific praise allows you to reinforce the high standards that you believe the other person is capable of attaining. In some cases, that’s enough.

“I like how you described the setting in this particular paragraph. You used the five senses to great effect. It pulled me into the story and made me feel I was right there, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling. Do more of that when you describe the other settings in the story.”

Being specific in your critique of someone’s work can point the way to continued improvement, as the above once did for me.

Early in my career, I deleted entire scripts, short stories or scenes of TV shows because someone I respected said: “It doesn’t work”.  It didn’t occur to me back then to ask: “What specifically doesn’t work?”

If someone requests your feedback, ask: What specifically should I look for?” (Is it the storyline, the character development, the way you describe things, use of dialogue — what?)

Criticise the work, not the person.  Most people flinch at receiving ‘negative criticism’.  One way to make that even worse is to criticise the person, when you should be criticising the work. It’s fine to praise a person’s particular skill in a personal way (“I’ve noticed that you’re skilled at writing dialogue,”) but it’s not okay to say “I’ve noticed you’re really bad at dialogue.”

Praise in public, criticise in private. I learned this soon after becoming a leader. Even the strongest personalities can be hurt when their efforts are criticised in front of others.

Agree on Guidelines for Group Critiques. You need to share expectations upfront with your group, and give each other permission. Never take consent for granted, even when everyone says they know what they signed up for.

Critiques should build up, not beat down. It’s not just because “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”.  It’s because feedback isn’t complete till you have identified both what works and what needs work. When someone receives your critique, s/he should feel equal parts challenged and empowered to make the changes required.

28 thoughts on “How to Give Feedback to Anyone”

  1. In photography, artists in the field are taught take criticism with a think skin. People rarely sugarcoat things and in groups to help people learn… Images people put their blood sweat and tears into are ripped to shreds. The people who grow a think skin and keep trying make it, and those who take it personally usually walk away. That being said, I wonder how much we’d learn from one another if things were done differently. It’s a competitive field. So unfortunately many people are hoping one another fail. Positivity doesn’t produce growth but it does cushion the blow and encourage people to keep trying.

    1. You and I go at this from different perspectives. The provider of the feedback often assumes there’s no need to point out the positive and zeros right in on what doesn’t work. But negative feedback alone is incompetent feedback, a sign of carelessness or poor leadership. Positive feedback alone is insufficient and likely equally dishonest. Both these approaches may be well- intended but are unprofessional, and do not encourage growth.

      1. I was actually agreeing with you and I was saying that more than likely there would be more artists and people who give up less if they took your approach but it’s so competitive that the artists giving the feedback are looking for people to fail. And again I was making a point not about the workplace where somebody is legitimately paying you to give people feedback but about photographers and artists who are looking for mentors on social media.

      2. I’m so sorry I misunderstood! It’s okay to disagree too. I actually liked thinking you disagreed because I thought it could lead to a good back and forth. So let’s find something to disagree on – quick! Thanks for responding.

      3. 😅 well if it makes you feel any better I definitely think that being too kind on people with criticism does not help people learn. This I’ve seen first hand. It’s a balancing act

    1. Thank you, Brad. Some years ago, a huge number of people in the workplace were asked what they needed from their leaders. Close to 90% said feedback or positive feedback. They didn’t see negative feedback as real feedback.

  2. After years of going through the creative writing workshop mill/gauntlet, “critique” has become a dirty word for me. What I’ve found works best (in addition to asking up front what type of feedback the writer needs at that stage of the writing process) is to first try my best to understand the writer’s goals for the piece and state them in my own words so that the writer and I will both know I’m not working at cross purposes with his/her/their intent. The conversation can then focus on the question of alignment. (This section aligns really well with your intent for x,y,z reasons. As a reader, I’m seeing a gap between your intent and my response in this section for x,y,z reasons. Here are some techniques/strategies that have proven effective to close this type of gap.) I feel very strongly that the most useful feedback for a draft is a conversation, not a critique. Stepping off the soapbox now . . .

  3. There are many good points here in the comments. To me, feedback is about reinforcing and building the good while encouraging “rebuilding” of the things needing to change.

    One unpleasant memory comes to mind from my work days. Company X’s HR department decided to implement a “360” review. Employees gave their reviews of the manager first (anonymously), then the manager gave the employees their individual reviews. I looked at the process, decided it was not helpful to anyone, and did not participate in the group anonymous review, done on individual floppy disks, one for each employee and turned back in to HR (that was a long time ago). The manager, who got a general bad review from the group, was vindictive, and told me he assumed I was one of the negative reviews, and gave me a bad review in turn. He thought I was lying when I said I did not participate in the process. It took a couple of years, but that manager was finally moved to “special projects” with no people assigned to him, sort of a company Phantom Zone for failed managers that allowed them to keep their jobs. The end result was that I left the company for a more growthful environment, and that manager, who was not a bad human being, never learned a thing.

      1. Yes, though a part of me still feels sorry for this person, clearly hurting from the group’s assessment of him, and lashing out. He was not a bad human being, but he sorely needed guidance. HR fell down on the job with this one. Why the 360 review process was ever set up like this is beyond me.

  4. Excellent points, Cynthia. I totally agree. One of the things I noticed when I started first getting one-on-one feedback from editors and agents at conferences is that’s always what they did – point out what’s good first, and then look at what could use improvement. You are so right!!!

  5. Such good advice, dear Cynthia. I agree that the good stuff must also be mentioned so the writer is sure to continue producing it while also improving where they need to.
    I couldn’t agree more with these wise words of yours: “When someone receives your critique, s/he should feel equal parts challenged and empowered to make the changes required.”
    Blessings ~ Wendy Mac

  6. Thanks, Cynthia! I learned a trick about critiquing writing–that of a student or of a peer– in this way: identify the negatives as opportunities because that is what they are–a chance to do something else.

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