Feedback is generally a stressor. Critiques put us on the defense. Review sessions make us anxious. But feedback is also one of the best ways to hold a mirror up to a situation or behavior. It's one of the best avenues we have for learning how we can grow.

Strategies for giving and receiving feedback

There are a few things you can do to practice giving and receiving feedback effectively. Namely, you want to increase predictability, limit scope, and be specific.

Remove the element of surprise

One of the reasons feedback is stressful is that it is unpredictable: you go into a review session knowing that your performance will be evaluated, but you may not be clear on the categories up for review. You may not even know who will be conducting the review.

Reviews should not be a surprise. By the time your review session comes around, you should have at least a general idea of how it is is going to go. A reviewer's goal should not be to blindside you or catch you off guard. Instead, think of a review session as time set aside to have an honest bi-directional conversation about what's going well and what can improve: a personalized retrospective. You can take it further and post your review format publicly so that everyone knows what to expect.

sample review format

If you're a reviewer, take time to really consider the items you have on your list and evaluate whether any of that feedback has never been brought up before. If it hasn't, give that particular bit of feedback context and give it extra time. New information needs space to be explored, evaluated, and contextualized so that it can be absorbed in a productive way. If either party identifies information as a surprise, or as new information, take that feedback and use it to improve how you communicate on a day to day basis. Once your review sessions no longer contain surprises, they can be focused on goal setting and actionable avenues to address performance instead of just highlighting issues.

"On average, employees want significantly more feedback than they receive. Make informal check-ins a part of the weekly routine so employees know they are on the right track. This makes progress reviews meaningful and future-oriented rather than focused on topics that should have been discussed already" Gallup: Building a High-Development Culture Through Your Employee Engagement Strategy

Focus on what's actionable

The most well-intentioned feedback will fall flat if it doesn't give at least a hint of a direction forward. Critiques that are not actionable are frustrating at best and feel like pointless complaints at worst.

In the QA department at SpiderOak, we've adopted the Start/Stop/Continue method Patty McCord covers in her book POWERFUL. We've found this to be an effective format for making giving and receiving feedback a regular practice. Asking everyone to come up with 3 lines of feedback is a more accessible task than asking, "Do you have any feedback you want to share?" We've also found that using imperative statements means that our feedback is automatically actionable. Example time: my team once unanimously gave me the feedback "Stop testing." This was far more useful to me than "Thanks for helping with the test cycles, but it's okay if you're too busy" because it brought their concerns front and center. With the simpler, more straightforward, "Stop testing", my team was able to relay to me that while they appreciated my willingness to step into the trenches, they felt my efforts were both better spent elsewhere, and that my distracted testing was not up to snuff for our standards. Their feedback made our department stronger.

Be specific, stay on target

If you want to solicit feedback, recognize that asking for feedback out of the blue is just as stressful as receiving it out of the blue. The person you are asking for help may be caught off guard and may not be able to give you what you're looking for out of context. Be specific in your request - let the person know why you're asking for feedback, and if possible, what type and how in depth you are hoping the feedback will be. An example might be getting review on an early draft of an article: asking a peer for nonspecific "feedback" may get you a proof-read when you really wanted to know if your organization presented your ideas effectively. Another example could be your child showing you a new drawing and asking whether you like it: in this case, your child probably wants to hear you love it, and not receive a run-down on how the color choice is interesting but the composition is unbalanced.

If you are asked for feedback, feel free to counter with questions to help you frame your feedback. Once you are clear on the kind of input you are being asked for, stay on target with that request. If John from Accounting asks you to listen to his presentation and let him know if he's speaking too quickly, avoid answering that question and then following up with a challenge to his choice of font. If you want to share more thoughts with him, your best bet is to ask him whether he's open to more feedback first.

With practice – and maybe a little luck – giving and receiving assessments will lose its sharpness. Your palms won't sweat, and constructive criticism will become common within your teams and organizations, allowing everyone to thrive.