Shifting Gears
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Why is it tough? How can it work better?

By Marcia Potter, President, SynTactSolutions, Inc.

Giving and receiving feedback is an extremely powerful interpersonal dynamic.

So powerful in fact, that it can literally break relationships or build enduring trust. Receiving feedback is an essential part of understanding how you operate in the world. It's the window through which you can view how others experience and receive your contributions, the expression of your ideas, skills and experience, and value your input or output. Feedback gives you clues about the behaviors you choose and the sensitivity you demonstrate in your dealings with others. Giving feedback is equally critical to how you operate -- it's your means of having influence, being heard, and expressing your needs and expectations. Delivering feedback is a means by which you can describe how you are experiencing others and the world around you.

We find people giving or receiving feedback in ways that call the message and the meaning into question. The four most common feedback interactions are:

  • in association with performance appraisals
  • to communicate something not done well or to expectations
  • to communicate excellence, satisfaction or something done beyond expectations
  • when someone seeks to know how well he or she has achieved a result.

If feedback is so powerful and important why is it so difficult to give and to receive? Because there is such a fine line between the potential to help or to harm. The delicate balance between help and harm primarily rests with the feedback provider. Depending on the timing and the setting for giving or receiving feedback the persons involved may derive little if any benefit from the interaction. Therefore, the setting and the timing are both important.

In our practice we have witnessed and worked to repair the end result of feedback gone awry. We know that there are common "traps" people fall into whether they are on the giving or the receiving end of feedback. Some of these traps occur when feedback is:

  • Given without being requested and in hit or miss fashion
  • Based on emotion and not on observation and/or fact
  • Indirect, masked, or given without explanation
  • Not contracted for up front and therefore not planned
  • Disregarded because of perceptions about intent, method or timing
  • Just plain not wanted.

How can one develop essential skills needed to both give and receive feedback? Like any other skill that is developed over time, the art of giving and receiving feedback takes practice. The table represents essential skills and behaviors for both the giver and the receiver.



The ability to discern fact from feeling the ability to articulate the difference.

The ability to accept information derived from experiences and perceptions not like your own

Purposefully observing the person(s) in the situation and not filling in observations after the fact

The ability to trust that others want to help when they offer feedback and invest time with you.

Investing personal energy and time into discussion with the receiver so that dialog can lead to understanding on both the part of the giver an the receiver.

The Ability to resist angry, defensive or argumentative responses.

The ability to explain the meaning behind observations and information being offered as feedback.

The ability to recognize opportunity, build relationships, gain trust, and develop skills in ways that you might not have envisioned.

The willingness to tell the truth as the giver views it.

The graciousness to receive
information even when you don't agree or understand.

The willingness to follow-up on actions resulting from feedback

The self-confidence to know that feedback given, whether positive or negative, is not a sign of self-worth.

The willingness to assist when feedback may be negative; to advocate and advance when feedback is positive.

The ability to recognize that you have more power than you realize to effect the outcome of opportunities presented when feedback is given.

The courage to adjust perceptions when all the facts aren't known.

The wisdom to know that without feedback you are blind.

Why is it important to develop the skills of giving and receiving feedback? Because the world of work is evolving. We live in the information age--and the information provided through all types of feedback channels will be critical in helping you to be successful in whatever situation you find yourself. The skills of gathering and staying open to feedback and insights from as many different vantage points as possible will help you to understand complex problems and your role in helping to solve them. In fact, the ability to know how to derive meaning from feedback helps you use it to your and your organization's advantage. This is an essential ingredient of excellence and leadership.

What other factors can shape the dynamics of giving and receiving feedback? Our human diversity is a powerful dynamic that can tip the scales on how feedback is conducted and experienced. Who we are, how we live, how we work and our ideologies very clearly shape our opinions and behaviors associated with giving and receiving feedback. Race, gender, ethnicity, education, background and experience, and our human values can and do factor in to the role we play as the giver and receiver of information in the form of feedback.

How can the traps be avoided?

DON'T... ...give feedback on the spur of the moment. Resist being set up for failure. ...give feedback at the height of emotion. If you are reacting from emotion or feelings--call it just that. ...assume or expect that feedback is the final judgment on any given topic, person, or situation. ...withdraw from feedback--especially when the giver comes to you in good faith and with good intent. ...underestimate the power you hold as the giver of information and the opportunity you have as the receiver of feedback...

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