How to give feedback that boosts confidence

Being asked to provide feedback to somebody is both a privilege and an honour — a vote of confidence that we’re seen as having valuable insights. But despite this, it seems to be something that a lot of us struggle with.

My own experiences have shown me that the vast majority of us fall into one of two categories:

  1. The well meaning who, in their desire not to offend, end up watering-down their feedback so much that their feedback becomes useless.
  2. Those who are so concerned not to fall into (1) that they impart rude and blunt feedback that’s dispiriting and undermines the confidence of the recipient.

I would say that most of us fall into group-1. Those in group-2 tend to be more memorable, but not in a good way.

You’re very unlikely to find anyone from the mythical tribe of group-1.5; the people able to deliver useful feedback without making you feel an inch high.

But maybe, if we try, we can start a movement. A movement of polite, supportive and honest people. People able to provide useful feedback, whilst simultaneously boosting the recipient’s confidence and therefore chances of success.

Let’s start with the basics — why do we want to give feedback?

Surely, there is only one reason — to help the recipient be the best they can; to help them write the best document they can, deliver the best PowerPoint presentation they are capable of, or to help them make the best decisions they are capable of.

When someone asks for feedback, they’re putting themselves in a uniquely vulnerable position. They’ve handed us the orb of power and what we do with it is our choice. We can choose to use the power wisely, or choose to use it to emphasise our superiority (group 2).

I would humbly suggest that any motive other than helping this person to be the best they can be, is a reason not to give feedback.

So let’s assume that we’re all on that page of helping someone.

Sometimes we are going to think the person who’s asked for feedback is actually slightly deluded. Maybe we think they’re not cut out to be the entrepreneur their document suggests they need to be, or maybe we think their document doesn’t impart any useful ideas.

Sometimes we need to suspend our disbelief. We might think this person isn’t the next Richard Branson, but that doesn’t mean they can’t surprise us. Very few successful people looked successful on day-1. If we use our feedback to dismiss anything other than a “dead-cert”, we’re abusing our power. Maybe they won’t make it… or maybe they’ll surprise us. Let’s give them the chance to surprise us by not dismissing their ideas, but helping them to improve them. Our job is to help them to surprise us.

Firstly, we need to be honest — to actually impart a message that helps the recipient to improve. If we avoid saying what needs to improve, we’re not being helpful. This is the group-1 problem and I believe it’s mostly down to having seen group-2 blunt feedback and not knowing how to do anything better — and therefore an adoption of an avoidance strategy.

When providing feedback, I find it helpful to separate the “what I think needs to improved” from the “how do I say this”. I first quickly jot down my points of feedback for my own consumption. These are the things I need to impart and I can’t duck them, because to duck them would be to not give the feedback that’s needed.

Once I’m clear of the points, I need to think how best to impart the message.

Success rarely comes without confidence. As we give feedback, it’s important to go about it in a way that boosts, rather than undermines, that confidence.

This is where group-2 fail — their over-focus on the facts blinds them that they’re going about things in a way that destroys confidence. If we’re destroying confidence, we’re not helping — and thus working against our primary objective. This doesn’t make any sense.

But there is a middle-ground, one where honest feedback is provided in a way that boosts confidence. So lets look at how we can deliver our messages in a way that that’s helpful, rather then confidence-destroying.

Let’s bring this to life with some examples of bad feedback and see if we can’t improve things. I’ve chosen a few small examples that are more group-2 than group-1. Group-1 behaviour is primarily driven by a lack of confidence that it’s possible to deliver meaningful feedback without offending. By showing how group-2 comments can be made more supportive, I hope these examples will simultaneously address the problems that both groups 1 and 2 struggle with.

Firstly, here’s a blinder, written by a prominent and successful businessman. He’s very googlable, proving that success doesn’t make you good at helping others. But, I will protect my sources — mr businessman, our secret is safe!

The other thing I look for is credibility — no typos!

Now this comment struck me as being one not designed to help the recipient, but one designed to cement a feeling of superiority in the feedback giver.

Clearly some typos had been spotted, but no attempt has been made to help the recipient identify them. Reading the one-liner, you might assume a profusion of typos; a disaster of a document. However, three people re-read the offending document several times and spotted a grand total of…. one typo. Maybe these three people are bad at finding typos, but that seems unlikely. In this light, the feedback seems a little over-the-top.

So, lets try to re-write this in a way that’s more helpful and supportive:

“In documents of this nature it’s really important to avoid typos, as they can erode confidence. I spotted this one [pointer to offending sentence]. You might want to do a careful proof-read in case there are others I missed.”

That’s better, isn’t it? Specific and supportive, rather than rude and dismissive.

How about this one, from a software engineer:

Here’s my comments:

I think the shade of blue is wrong.

You need to prune the text — nobody will read it all.

….

This one falls into several traps.

Firstly, the comment on the shade of blue. As a programmer, this person wasn’t known as an expert on design; far from it. The comment is expressed as a personal one “I think” rather than a factual one. If you’re commenting outside of your domain of expertise, like in this case, it’s best to eat some humble pie. Because, if it’s not your domain of expertise, your comments should not have the same level of authority as they would on your specialist topic.

I might reword it something like this:

“As you know, I’m not a design expert, but I did wonder if we haven’t quite got the colours right just yet — it might be worth checking with someone better qualified to confirm.”

Notice how this admits a lack of expertise, but still manages to deliver a message that the colour scheme might need some attention.

Also, notice the use of “we” in that rewrite. Referring to “we”, rather than “I think this” or “you’ve done this wrong” is a great way to avoid feedback feeling like an us/them thing. If you’re trying to help someone, putting yourself on their side and part of a joint team is an awesome approach to being supportive.

I’d have similar comments on the second point. This is a strong personal statement of opinion on a topic the writer isn’t an authority on. Again, it’s best to tread lightly.

Let’s have a go at re-writing that one:

“I’m a little concerned that the amount of text might not be consistent with people’s attention spans at this point. Maybe something to look at?”

Notice the “maybe something to look at?” comment. When giving feedback it’s all about suggesting things and hoping the recipient will pick up on them and own them. The original text stated a very strong personal opinion, a style that feels a little confrontational and can often invoke an opposing feeling in the recipient, as they rush to defend their creation.

We don’t want our feedback recipients to get caught up in a defensive emotional response, because that means they’re less likely to think about our comments. Wording our comments in a way that makes a suggestion, rather than stating an opinion, is a good way to go.

Part of the problem with badly formed feedback is that we sometimes launch straight into the detail of things that need to be corrected.

If our first thought on forming feedback is “here’s something that needs to be better”, we should stop. Take our hands off of the keyboard and stop typing!

There’s a golden rule for feedback — always, always, always start on the positive. Forget what is broken or wrong, think about what is good. What has this person achieved? What shines out as being great, or even just good? And praise them for what is good.

Only then should we address the things that need to be improved.

Why do this? As a recipient, reading the positive comments encourages you to think this person is on your side. They’re saying nice things, they’re trying to help. And that means that when you get to the criticisms, those criticisms are taken as ones from a friend. In other words, your brain is more likely to accept them and less likely to be offended. And it means our confidence is less likely to be impacted by those criticisms.

Remember, we’re trying to help our feedback recipient to be the best they can, so helping them to process our comments in a positive light and to boost their confidence, is something we want to achieve.

If we can’t think of anything good, we can try thinking about how this person is stepping out of their comfort zone and doing something they find tough. How about starting our response “I really respect how you’re going down this road — it mustn’t be easy. Writing documents like this is tough, so I hope my following comments are helpful in getting a document that reflects the effort you’re putting into this”?

My one golden rule is to ALWAYS start with praise. There isn’t anything we can’t find a way of praising — we just need to try.

In conclusion, I offer 6 rules for feedback:

  1. The only reason for giving feedback is to help our recipient be the best they can be.
  2. People can surprise us — achieving things we might not think them capable of, so it pays to suspend disbelief.
  3. Always start by praising, before moving on to things to improve — boost confidence!
  4. Use “we” rather than “you” and “I” to create a sense of a joint team.
  5. When commenting on things outside of our own direct expertise, it pays to tread gently and to suggest, rather than tell.

If we provide feedback that ducks the issues, we’re not being helpful. This document needs to get better, and it will only get better if we explain clearly what needs to improve. Being overly polite isn’t helping anyone, so we need to be specific. But we don’t need to be rude.

If you’re a group-1 type, who finds it hard to deliver critical messages, I hope my thoughts help you to be more specific in your feedback.

If you’re a group-2 type, who tends to deliver blunt messages that are in danger of undermining confidence, I hope my thoughts give you some tools to be a little gentler but without ducking the essence of your message.

And if you’re somebody who actively uses feedback as a way of asserting your superiority — please, stop giving feedback and get some therapy!

Eclectic tastes, amateur at most things. Learning how to build a new startup. Former CTO for IBM Watson Europe.