Psychologist, Marg Wolf trained many helping professionals, including me. We were interns in the ten-week domestic violence prevention program called, You are Not Alone. Marg provided clear and helpful feedback that made the process easy, doable, repeatable and empowering. Indeed, her performance feedback improved our skill levels!
Not once did I experience criticism. I experienced performance feedback that week by week improved my skill level.
The Difference Between Criticism and Feedback
Definition of Criticism
The Oxford English Dictionary defines criticism as
The expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.”
Faults, disapproval and blame are not far apart. No one wants a critical voice and finger pointed at them. Criticism has a tone of judgement and often disgust.
Definition of Feedback
The Oxford English Dictionary defines feedback as
Information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.”
As friend, Brian Lee says, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” At least it is for those interested in continual learning, growth, and improvement. It is a key ingredient to minimizing mistakes, while aiding personal and professional development. The best feedback is given with the intention to help others do better, do more with more ease, or have a happier life.
Yet, be forewarned! In friendships and casual relationships unsolicited feedback is seldom welcomed. Improvement focused feedback does imply that change of some kind is advised. Invited feedback, however, can provide mutual growth.
Giving effective feedback is an excellent skill to have. It can strengthen resilience in the provider, the receiver and the organization as a whole. Giving guidance and feedback is part of the job descriptions of leadership roles such as manager, trainer, director, mentor, and parent.
Four Strategies for Giving Feedback
When I think of the feedback I received from Marg Wolf, I think of SMART. The SMART formula is borrowed from the well-known SMART Goals acronym. Below I offer the SMART formula and three other strategies. Use as many as is helpful to the situation.
ONE: 5 Steps to SMART Feedback
Be Specific: At our first session Marg told us, “Please place the chairs six inches apart, in a semi-circle, with the tissue box in the middle.” The instruction was clear, doable and repeatable. She did not need to give the instruction in the remaining nine weeks. But we did receive acknowledging feedback when we remembered to do it!
Make it Measurable: At the debrief Marg would use numbers to validate her feedback.
Example: “Patricia, I appreciated how you acknowledged the pain expressed by three of the women.”
Be Authentic: Her feedback was never over-the-top flattery such as “You are absolutely amazing!” but more observational.
Example: “When you added humor, Patricia, I saw smiles on the majority of the women’s faces and it added some fun to a difficult topic.”
Make it Relatable: Ensure that your feedback is relevant and significant.
Example: “Next time, you will be facilitating your own group so here are three suggestions that might help you.”
Keep it Timely: A debriefing was held after each of the ten-week sessions. Feedback was chucked down and made specific, measurable, authentic and relatable ten times. This made the giving and receiving very manageable. No wonder yearly performance reviews are often experienced as a distressful dump.
TWO: When All is Going Well: Acknowledge
- Express appreciation for what was said or done that supported or helped you.
- Describe any helpful or notable strengths, skills or attitudes.
- “I appreciate your position. Thank you for telling us your concern.”
- “I like your ability to stay calm and objective about the situation.”
THREE: When Almost All is Going Well and You Want Change: Make a Request
- Make a suggestion.
- Give two reasons for the suggestion: 1) What it will accomplish (the benefit) and 2) What it will solve (prevent)
- Make an encouraging statement.
- “I suggest you indicate you are listing by saying something like ‘Right’ (suggestion). “Then the speaker will know you’re paying attention” (benefit).
- “It will also help you not miss any important points. (prevent).
- “You already demonstrate wonderful care and support to others.”
FOUR: When There is a Serious Problem
- State the problem.
- State situation-related consequences. State the problem as our problem. Use the words we, us, our, together.
- Probe to identify the cause of the problem.
- Actively listen.
- Ask for solutions.
- Develop a concise action plan.
- Summarize and set a time for follow-up.
- “The safety procedures were not followed.”
- “Consequently, we have an injured worker.”
- “What got in the way of using the procedures?”
- Demonstrate you are listening. Nod your head. Lean in.
- “How can we support you so all will go well, from here on in?”
- “Help me put an action plan in place that will work for all of us.”
- “Now that we have an action plan I’d like to meet with you for a follow-up next Tuesday.”
Giving helpful feedback is an art form. It helps you have someone like Marg Wolf to model how to deliver with grace and clarity. If you don’t have the advantage of a role model or mentor, practice some of the strategies described above. Focus on strategy of giving feedback at a time; and avoid being critical of your own performance. OK?