The Secret to Giving Transformational Feedback

Recently while I was collecting feedback from a colleague of a client as part of an in-depth 360º assessment, I was struck by something rare: The opinions she shared were unusually direct, detailed and thoughtful, yet clearly coming from a place of love and compassion for our client.

In my role as a 360º feedback specialist, I have spoken to literally thousands of bosses, colleagues, customers and loved ones of clients, and few have been as dialed-in as that feedback-giver. What does she know that others don’t? What distinguishes constructive — even transformational — feedback from the more indirect, diluted or overly harsh kind?

The answer lies in our ability to understand and stay connected to the underlying intention of giving feedback in the first place.

A Matter of Intention

Our intentions have a huge impact on how we carry out our actions. This is especially true while doing something as delicate as giving direct feedback to a loved one or colleague. But we aren’t always conscious of why we do the things we do, and sometimes our unconscious intentions can hijack us. For example, when we go to give our colleague feedback, if we are driven by our need to appear as safe or non-threatening, we may tiptoe around an issue in a way that actually feels more threatening to the feedback recipient. Over time, this may result in our feeling discouraged when things repeatedly don’t go the way we had hoped. We might conclude that, “every time I give my colleague feedback, he shuts down…” without being aware that it is how we give feedback — driven by our unconscious intention — that is sabotaging us.

The good news is that by taking a few minutes to journal, strategize, or simply connect with your positive feelings for the recipient before offering feedback, you will likely reap rewards in the form of generative discussions, stronger relationships and better results.

First, it’s helpful to recognize when you’re being hijacked by an unconscious intention. Let’s explore two of the most common counterproductive feedback tendencies, the unconscious intentions that may be driving them and their potential consequences.

1. Avoiding, diluting or sugarcoating

Perhaps the most common feedback-related dysfunction is not delivering the message at all — or delivering it in a form so watered down or sugarcoated that the recipient may not even realize it’s important feedback. Frankly, if you are sugarcoating or avoiding the conversation all together, you are probably driven by a need to be liked or to be seen as safe. You may think, “I don’t want to hurt him/her”, but what you are really concluding is that a) they can’t handle your feedback, and thus b) they will see you as judgmental or mean if you share it.

The twisted part is that the longer you protect your image by avoiding the conversation, the more your irritation builds. At the same time, your colleague, unaware that what he is doing isn’t working for you, continues their behavior. As your story about the other person becomes more extreme, it becomes even harder for you to raise the issue and still be seen as safe. It’s a vicious cycle, and it could end with a blow-up or a gradual distancing of the relationship. At the very least, it limits how close you can become to your friend or colleague. All this so you can be seen as nice!

2. Being harsh, unloading or punishing

On the other end of the spectrum is delivering feedback in an emotionally heated way, as if the purpose of the feedback was less about helping the recipient grow and more about your need to vent. Maybe this occurs because you’ve been holding in your feelings as described above, or maybe you perceive you have been slighted in some way.

If you find your self cutting someone down, raising your voice or making a case against someone, you can be sure that somewhere underneath your anger, you feel hurt or slighted. This person — intentionally or not — has hurt your feelings. It’s that simple. And since feeling hurt, slighted, vulnerable, or unacknowledged is not comfortable, you may be driven to attack, belittle, or diminish the person “responsible” in order to find some relief.

The problem with this approach — aside from increasing your emotional turmoil, damaging relationships and often resulting in guilt — is that it leaves no room for the other person’s perspective. You become so driven by pushing the other person away, or at least being right, that you don’t leave an opening for them to explain themselves, open up about their own struggles or motivations, etc. Again, you enter a vicious cycle where in response to a perceived lack of safety, you make the situation even less safe, and you may even stifle opportunities to build trust or empathy.

How to set healthy intentions

Because our unconscious intentions often have a strong emotional component (such as the fear of being seen as judgmental or the need to retaliate for a perceived slight), our conscious, healthy intention must also be strongly rooted in our emotions. So, what we are looking for is a sense of potency, an intention strong enough to guide our behavior even when things get difficult and our fears are out in full force. I recommend journaling on the following to set a healthy intention:

  1. Connect with your care and compassion for your colleague (or friend or boss).  Where have you seen them struggle?  How is your feedback part of their long-term development as a human being? How will not giving them this feedback slow them down, or perpetuate suffering in their life?
  2. Why is this relationship with your colleague important to you? What are the costs to the relationship of not giving feedback, or giving it in a hurtful or ineffective way? What benefits are you missing by not having this conversation (increased feeling of closeness/connection, more effective working relationship, etc.)?
  3. If you struggle to connect with your positive feelings for this person and your relationship with them, think more broadly. Is your unaddressed issue with them causing you stress or anger? Are you bringing that negativity home (does it affect your relationship with your spouse or children)? Is it getting in the way of your effectiveness at work (does it impact your focus, or your relationships with others)?
  4. Once you’ve connected to something meaningful for you, try to think of a simple phrase that captures the essence. Examples may include: “I want to create a safe, healthy work environment,” “I want what’s best for my friend and colleague,” or “I will not bring this stress home anymore.”

The benefits of healthy intentions

Just as being unconsciously driven by fear or hurt might cause you to be hesitant, indirect, or harsh when giving feedback, being consciously driven by compassion will lead you to be direct, exploratory, and vulnerable. You may still need to strategize, role-play with a friend, or journal on the specifics of your feedback, but this will be much easier and more natural when you are holding a strong intention.

Holding a healthy intention will help you stay centered even if your colleague or friend has a negative reaction to your feedback. Before responding to their reaction, ask yourself, “Does my response serve my intention for this person or the relationship? If not, what would better serve my intention?” Your ability to stay centered in these pivotal moments can make or break a feedback session.

Learning to set and hold strong, healthy intentions before giving feedback is a skill that will deepen relationships, better support your co-workers and loved ones, and increase your own sense of well-being.  Start building this muscle today.

  1. Jenny says:

    Jonathan, this is a great post–extremely helpful. I’m going to share it with others!

    1. Jonathan London says:

      Jenny, thanks for the feedback – excited to get some of my thoughts out into the world (something you know a thing or two about!). I hope you’re well.

  2. Charles says:

    Jonathan, ditto to what Jenny said! I’ve forwarded your blog to IGR at Michigan– it will be very helpful to your old friends there. I’ve also sent it to IGR at Skidmore College, where they are instituting a new system of feedback for faculty and staff who are teaching/coaching their dialogue courses. Not to feed your ego, but I’m a huge Jonathan London fan!!!!!

    1. Jonathan London says:

      Charles, thanks for forwarding, especially to my friends at IGR. Aren’t you and Jenny due for a seminar? 😉 It would be great to catch up soon.

  3. Ariel says:

    Awesome article, Jon! Something I find amazing is that even though I do this work, I still need to be reminded all the time how important it is to set healthy intentions and give direct feedback…

    Can’t wait to read more blogs from you!

    1. Jonathan London says:

      Ari, totally! It’s kind of like exercising. The more you do it, the easier it is, but it’s never as easy as NOT doing it! With both exercising and giving healthy feedback, I think it’s important to remember the mess that results from taking the (short-term) easy way out. NOT EASY short-term, but clearly the right choice long-term.

  4. Carole says:

    I’m taking advantage of your blog, Jonathan, to highlight that the role of feedback interviewer is key in the quality of our 360° feedback at LAL . You guys know how to create a caring and safe environment and engage participants in giving the most useful information in your interviews. The synthesis process is essential for a good feedback delivery and it takes both a structured and intuitive mind. As a person delivering the feedback, I’m very grateful for your hard work.

    1. Jonathan London says:

      Carole – thank you! I’m grateful to be doing this work, and to play the role that I play in our clients’ processes.

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