I have often struggled with giving and receiving feedback in my career. This week, I am writing the first in a two-article series on feedback. This will include:
Giving Feedback So It Lands
Tough love: How hard feedback changed my career
When it comes to giving actionable feedback, I still have a lot to learn. I often find myself guilty of giving “drive-by feedback”. I set up a time to meet with someone, give them my thoughts in a passive voice with lots of caveats, and then congratulate myself on having had the hard conversation.
Effective feedback is clear, actionable, and focused on growth. If you are thinking of giving feedback simply to change someone else's behavior, you should stop there. It should come from a place of wanting the best for the other person and for your relationship. Doing it for the right reasons means that it will land. Doing it for the wrong reasons means that it is unlikely to help the other person grow, and it may even hurt your relationship.
All feedback is given and received in the context of your relationship. Have you ever given feedback to someone with whom you are in constant conflict? They will see that feedback as a way to win or to manipulate the situation. But if you give the same feedback to someone who knows you are rooting for their success, it will be a gift that pays dividends.
Verbal Feedback: Start with the tl;dr
The least effective way to deliver feedback is often verbally. You put the content out there in the ether, and you expect the other person to understand it and take action.
One day, I was meeting with the manager of one of the key people on my team. I knew they were struggling in their relationship. I asked how it was going in our one-to-one meeting, and the manager replied, “I was really direct. I told her that this was not working, and explained the things that had to change.” I then spoke to his report, who said, “I'm not sure what my manager wants. We had a long, confusing conversation about what I wanted and he wanted, but we resolved nothing.”
Imagine you had to convey the entirety of your feedback in just one sentence. What would you say? That is how you start a verbal feedback conversation. Verbal feedback is often sandwiched with so much other stuff that it is rarely successfully given, much less received. Here is a simple method to ensure your spoken feedback is heard:
Start by setting aside a specific time and state up front that you are giving feedback. For example, “Can we take ten minutes of our 1:1 to discuss some feedback I want to share?”
Give the tl;dr. For instance, “When we are together in meetings, I feel you are not listening, because you interrupt me to get your point across.”
Give a concrete example, such as, “During the XFN meeting on Wednesday, I was talking about increasing our investment in growth over a few features. You interrupted me and diverted the conversation twice to discuss trust and safety.”
Make sure to explain the impact. “It made me feel unheard, and I'm reluctant to speak up when you are in the room.”
Give time for the feedback to sink in and then discuss ways you can jointly address any issues. After I shared feedback about how one person used the words, “I am worried about...” to start each sentence, he replied, “I didn't notice I was doing this. If you see me doing this, use this word to signal me, and I will pause.” The funny thing is, I rarely had to use the word because he was much more conscious of what he was doing after I called it out.
Photo Feedback: a Picture Says 1,000 Words
We were once in a Zoom meeting and I could tell that one of my product managers was getting frustrated during the discussion. As the debate ping-ponged from person to person, I noticed he had his arms crossed, and his facial expression conveyed his frustration. So I messaged him a screenshot of the Zoom. What you say is only a small part of communication. Your body language and tone are just as important as your words, if not more so. Immediately after I shared the image via chat, he smiled and uncrossed his arms, and for the rest of the discussion, he engaged with equanimity. We had a good laugh about it afterward.
This likewise happened once with another PM, who told me she didn't feel like she had an easy time connecting with people in meetings. I didn't know why, so I sat in on a meeting with her. I noticed her closed body language during a discussion, so I snapped a photo. Sitting beside her was a colleague, and the contrast in their body language was immediately obvious. He looked open and inquisitive, and she looked closed and upset. That was the vibe she was inadvertently giving off, and the photo helped her see how others perceived her.
Video Feedback: Seeing is Believing
One day a contractor reached out asking me for advice. As we sat face to face in the meeting room, I noticed she barely made eye contact with me. She described struggling with getting her manager to support her moving to a full-time position even though she felt like she was qualified. So I asked her if I could pretend to be her manager and use her phone to make a video of our conversation.
Once I started to record, I asked her to tell me how I could help her. She spoke quietly while making a circuitous ask about moving to full-time. The whole time, she looked at the table or at a spot just beyond where I was. We watched the video together. She then looked me in the eyes for the first time and said, “Oh, now I get it.” I urged her to practice with a friend who could record her, so she could work on how she presented herself for the next conversation.
Similarly, I once did a mock interview with a Data Scientist who was interested in transferring to PM. He had been filling in on the PM role for his team and doing a good job, but he was struggling with the interviews. I met with him a couple of times to go over some questions. His nervousness drove him to speak at a frenetic pace, and I really struggled with how to explain it to him. Finally, I asked if I could record the interview and show it to him. He agreed. We did a five-minute segment and then watched it together. I asked, “Would you hire this person?”
He replied, “No, he is all over the place.” Exactly. Fortunately, he corrected his pacing and has since become a senior PM leader.
Sometimes it takes being able to see and hear ourselves the way others do to understand the feedback we are being given. In both of these cases, explaining and coaching were not enough. A short video enabled the feedback to land, which unlocked the information they needed to grow.
Written Feedback: When Verbal Communication is Insufficient
I remember struggling to verbally communicate with a peer. Our one-to-ones were challenging, and I didn't think it would be possible for me to give direct feedback face to face, since the underlying problem was with our verbal communication.
I decided to send him an email instead, which went like this:
“I have a hard time having 1:1s with you. Every time we have a conversation, I feel like I am playing a tennis match. I say something, and you throw it back at me over and over until I relent/agree. It is a bit exhausting, but the conversations are overall useful. I value your opinion, and I appreciate your time. However, I often wonder as I’m leaving these conversations if you heard me. Perhaps we can find another way to engage that is less back and forth and more where we explore issues together in a constructive way. Perhaps it is the phrasing, not the sentiment, but you say ‘You should’ or “You have to admit...’”
Writing the issues out gave us the space to consider why we had fallen into this dynamic without the pressure of having to respond at the moment. A couple of weeks later we had a follow-up conversation, which helped us create a new, more constructive mode of communication.
Written feedback should follow the same form as verbal feedback. This means giving a simple tl;dr, concrete examples, and an explanation of how it affects you, without being accusatory. I wrote the feedback above, but I didn't send it for a few days. Ultimately, I'm very glad I did, since now we have a much richer understanding than before.
Feedback is Truly a Gift
Feedback is sometimes hard to hear, but when given in the spirit of support, it is a gift beyond measure. Some of the most difficult feedback I have ever been given was a turning point in my career because it unblocked something within me that stood in my way. I will share more on that next week.
The spoken words, photos, videos, and emails you share have the potential to transform the person who receives them. I know that I personally treasure the feedback I receive so much that I want to pay it forward. When it comes to improving the dynamic between you and another, giving feedback that lands can make all the difference in the world.