The Art of Feedback (And Why It Really Matters)

The Art of Feedback (And Why It Really Matters)

Confession: I’m not exactly a natural when it comes to feedback. Offering meaningful criticism was a skill I learned later in life, and to this day, I have to work consciously to give and interpret feedback the right way. For a long time, I felt like this was a gap in my ability — a sensitivity to criticism I just happened not to be born with.

But that wasn’t exactly the case. The more I developed my coaching and broadcasting skills, the more I was forced to develop my feedback muscles — first by receiving feedback from audiences and colleagues, then by offering it to students and friends. That’s when I began to realize just how important it is to structure and share feedback the right way.

In the process, I learned something equally important: most people really struggle with giving criticism. The fact that it’s so important — and so personal — makes the act of sharing feedback even harder. And yet we need detailed, clear, intelligent criticism more than ever. Our careers, relationships, and happiness depend on it.

No Way Around It

Feedback matters. Dr. David Kolb, who pioneered the Experiential Learning Cycle, was the first to show how engaging with others is really the connective tissue between perceiving and processing new information. Researchers like Dr. Faith Hill, meanwhile, identified the essential role of feedback in the learning cycle. The research on criticism is vast, but it all points to one core insight:

Human beings need other people’s perspectives in order to grow.

If they get those perspective in a productive and meaningful way, they thrive.

If they don’t, they struggle at a much higher rate with confidence, self-image, resilience, and an objective sense of self.

In fact, even people who do get proper feedback still wrestle with these qualities, which propels them to seek feedback even more. Information about ourselves is a fundamental human need.

I’d go even further, though, and argue that feedback isn’t just an important part of our self-development, but a pillar of social capital.

Simply put, we cannot build truly strong relationships without giving and receiving meaningful feedback.

Which explains why so many of the high performers we’ve interviewed literally carve out time in their schedules to give their friends and colleagues ideas, suggestions and notes on whatever they’re pursuing. Where you might expect successful people to be too busy for that sort of thing, it’s precisely those people who make time for feedback who tend to succeed. (When we talk about generosity as a pillar of social capital, this is what we mean.) These people have made giving feedback a strategic and personal priority, and woven it into their social lives.

So if we’re going to talk about success, we have to talk about criticism.

That’s what this piece is about: how to give feedback to friends, colleagues, and peers in a way that deepens your relationships, enhances your self-understanding, and builds true social capital.

We’ll look at a set of seven core principles we’ve developed here at AOC, delving into practicals and specifics along the way to help you put these techniques into practice immediately.

But first, we have to talk about what not to do.

How Not to Give Feedback

Let’s start with the sandwich.

By now you’ve probably heard of the “compliment sandwich,” which has become a popular (and almost hacky) technique for delivering feedback in a positive, non-threatening way.

The compliment sandwich has made its way into mainstream corporate culture, and was actually parodied in the episode of Family Guy where Stewie hires Brian at his new company.

So the technique is a little ridiculous, but it actually gets at something important, which is how to deliver difficult information in a way that doesn’t hurt or piss someone off — in other words, in a way that manages to preserve their sense of self. As we’re about to find out, it’s not really the order of the criticism that makes it go down well, but we’ll get to that in just a minute. (In the meantime, how great was that Family Guy clip?)

Still, the research now shows that the compliment sandwich doesn’t quite work the way we thought it did. Researchers like Brown, Farnham, and Cook, for example, found that the sandwich tends to improve responses to criticism in confident, assured people, but provoke resistance in everyone else.

Other feedback models, like Pendleton’s Rules, focus on strengths over weaknesses and encourage people to turn criticisms into matters of agreement. All good ideas, but even Pendleton’s kid gloves create their own problems, including an artificial dynamic, feedback anxiety, and a muddled evaluation of people’s true performance. (I wish I had a Family Guy clip for Pendleton’s Rules, but not even Seth MacFarlane could make them funny.)

All of these theories, from the sandwich to Pendleton to the Calgary-Cambridge approach, have contributed good ideas to the process of giving feedback. What they miss, though, is how to give meaningful feedback, which is much harder. It’s also the whole point of feedback!

So before we move on, let’s throw out everything we’ve been taught about feedback.

Let’s toss out the sandwich and its artificially constructed criticism flanked by praise. Let’s put aside Pendleton’s Rules and its collaborative feedback dominated by strengths. Let’s forget   how our parents gave us compliments before school and how our teachers gave us comments on papers and how our bosses gave us reviews at the end of the year.

Let’s throw out this results-oriented approach to feedback, where we deliver our criticism in a way that aims for some specific outcome: to correct someone’s performance, to not offend the other person, to figure out the right answers.

Instead, let’s shift into process-oriented feedback, where the value of our criticism comes not just from what we’re hoping to achieve, but from the journey of understanding, exploring and playing with different perspectives — positive and negative — in a way that enhances people’s insight, rapport and confidence.

If we can stay in that zone, we’ve already avoided the pitfalls of these crusty old models. We’ve also stepped into a type of feedback that does more than balance good and bad news like a local news program. It’s the type of criticism that deepens your relationships, no matter what’s actually being said, because it’s driven by curiosity, generosity and empowerment. Let’s dive into that now.

The Seven Principles of Great Feedback

Like Stewie inviting Brian into his office, you’ll always be feeling out your role as feedback-giver. Unlike Stewie, though, you’ll also want to be attuned to the experience of the person you’re giving feedback to. Moving back and forth between these two sides of the equation is a key dynamic of good feedback, which brings us to our first principle, which is to…

Decide when to give feedback and when to listen.

The instinct to offer feedback is built into our personalities: we’re opinion-having and opinion-seeking creatures. But not all situations call for feedback. So the first step is deciding whether the person across from you is actually looking for feedback, or whether they simply want to share something — a project, an idea, a goal, a wish — with you.

Of course, your relationship with the other person matters a great deal here. A friend showing you the first draft of his screenplay is very different from one of your employees showing you a new marketing campaign, which in turn is different from your CEO announcing a shift in corporate strategy. Obviously, each will carry its own expectations and politics, which will determine if and how you offer your perspective.

Whenever someone shares a project with me, I often ask them straight-up: “Is this something you wanted my feedback on, or is this something you just wanted me to see?” I find that that opens a window for the other person to ask for feedback, or to safely explain that they’re just sharing at this stage. That helps us both avoid the dreaded feeling (and wasted time) of unwarranted feedback.

And there’s nothing worse than unsolicited feedback. Criticism, even when it’s spot-on, can fall flat or even do damage if it isn’t really wanted. Because it’s an expression of intimacy and judgment, it requires a space of openness and consent to be truly effective. So never assume that someone wants feedback if they haven’t explicitly asked for it. Begin as an observer, and only offer feedback if it’s truly welcome.

In some cases, of course, you are warranted to offer feedback even when the person hasn’t explicitly asked for it. A creative partnership or an old friendship, for example, often carry their own “rules” that implicitly invite feedback. Same with an employee-employer relationship, where a boss is expected to weigh in on decisions and help an employee develop as a professional.

So consider the dynamic and politics of your relationship, and check in before offering feedback. That’s the first step in laying the groundwork for productive criticism.

Acknowledge and understand first.

Once you determine that your feedback is welcome, you have to move through one more stage: acknowledging the person’s effort and understanding their intention.

This part is critical for three reasons:

  • First, recognizing somebody’s effort on a project will automatically prime them to engage with you in a more open, dynamic way.
  • Second, making sure you understand why they’re pursuing this project will deepen that rapport and help you understand what’s at stake for them in this conversation.
  • Third, fully understanding somebody’s effort and intent will make your feedback significantly stronger and more empathic.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of feedback from someone who missed this step, then you know how disheartening it can be. That feeling of This person didn’t get what I was trying to do at all or But I put in so much work already — these are natural reactions that stem from feeling misunderstood. Notice that they have nothing to do with whether the feedback was good or bad: they’re purely about feeling recognized and understood.

So before I offer someone feedback, I consciously take a moment to understand their goals and recognize what it took to get to this point. This is deliberate, but it isn’t artificial, because it’s always true: by the time someone asks you for feedback on a project, they definitely have some sort of intention with it, and they definitely put in some degree of time, effort and emotion into bringing it to life. It’s important to honor that.

I like to begin with some version of the following: “First of all, I know how hard it is to create something like this, and I can only imagine how much work went into getting it to this point. Thank you for sharing it with me. I hope whatever we talk about helps you build on all the thinking you’ve done.”

If I’ve tried to work on something similar, then I might share my own memory of the experience as a way of placing myself in their shoes. That brings me closer to the other person and reminds me what’s at stake (emotionally, professionally, personally) for them.

I then take as long as I need asking specific, open-ended questions to really understand what this person is trying to accomplish with the project. That way, when I do offer my thoughts, they’ll be in service of their goals, and not just what I think is important.

For example, telling someone to completely rebuild their app’s UI when they’re just looking for thoughts on features wouldn’t be very helpful. Just like delving into the nitty-gritty of a new product isn’t particularly relevant if someone’s just wondering if the product idea is interesting.

So take the time to learn what you need to know before you critique. This also helps me approach the conversation from a place of empathy and collaboration, not distance and subjectivity — a key part of process-oriented feedback. Ultimately, if your feedback isn’t in service of the other person’s goal, interest or priority at this moment, then it’s probably best not to share it.

Now, you might be thinking that this stage is all technique — a clever way to appeal to people’s egos and disarm their defenses.

It’s not.

Every attempt to create something — big or small, impressive or flawed — has its virtues, even if the main virtue is that the person tried at all. As we know, we humans need genuine, healthy validation. Recognizing someone for their successes before you offer criticism isn’t some piece of social engineering; it’s a way of recognizing the humanity in the other person.

So take those extra few moments to really understand the project at hand before offering your take. It’s always a good investment.

Frame your feedback by explaining your point of view.

The more I give and receive feedback, the more I realize that there isn’t really any such thing as “objective” feedback — only opinions masquerading as the truth.

As a student of life who loves theory and structure, it took me a while to really accept this. But outside of a few core principles — don’t bore your audience, create something users want, keep things simple, and so on — most of the feedback we receive is really just a reflection of the person giving it.

All opinions are informed by people’s principles, interests and taste, and because those opinions are filtered through those biases, you have to be open about what those biases are.

To put it simply: Your feedback will never be “right.” It will always be a reflection of who you are and what you want at this moment.

Which means your feedback can only be more helpful or less helpful, more insightful or less insightful, more empowering or less empowering — but never the “truth.” It might satisfy some interests you both agree on — like producing more effective work or making the company happy — but even these agreed-upon metrics are a reflection of the interests of the person giving the feedback.

Which is why I begin every feedback session by stating that upfront.

“This is only one person’s opinion,” I like to begin. “Whatever I share with you is based on my experiences, my tastes, my preferences. If it feels helpful — awesome. If it doesn’t — please don’t treat it as gospel. Just take what works and leave the rest. I won’t be offended or hurt if you don’t agree with me. The only thing that really matters is what you want to do.”

Framing your feedback in this way does three critical things.

  • First, it brings you and the other person closer together by dispelling any notion that you are “right” and they are “wrong.” Even the most self-assured person will suffer from feedback delivered as gospel. Not only is it misguided, it’s counterproductive. You can immediately bridge that gap by calling out the subjectivity of your own feedback. Ironically, that actually makes your criticism more meaningful — because it helps the other person understand why you’re giving it in the first place.
  • Second, it invites the other person into a space of openness and autonomy. You are no longer the Wise One with the Right Feedback, but the Fellow Human with a Few Thoughts. You’re sharing rather than dictating, offering rather than ordering. You’ve also given the other person permission to protect their work and interpret your feedback as they wish, which preserves their sense of self throughout the conversation.
  • Third, acknowledging your biases moves both of you into a space of exploration and curiosity about the right solution. The best feedback is really a conversation, not a charge sheet. We have to remember that criticism should ultimately empower and uplift, not compromise and constrain. One way to make sure it does is to be transparent about our preferences.

There is no such thing as objective feedback. There are only opinions. Always remember that.

Understand before you critique or resolve.

We’ve already discussed how important it is to understand a person’s intentions before offering feedback. But understanding isn’t just a stage on your checklist — it’s an ongoing theme of the entire feedback process. As you share your thoughts, always be sure to understand how and why someone made the choices they did.

Why is this principle important?

  • First, diagnosing an issue can be more useful than finding the solution. Sometimes the greatest note you can give is simply an observation. Noticing a gap, tracking a problem or just sharing your experience of someone’s work can give them the perspective they need to come up with the right solution themselves — which, by the way, will almost always be better than any solution you propose.
  • Second, articulating a problem gives rise to better ideas. As the old adage goes, every problem contains the seeds of its solution. Norman Vincent Peale took that one step further by saying that if you can’t put your finger on the problem, then you don’t get any seeds. In many cases, the problem you try to articulate actually sheds light on a bigger issue that is far more important than your original note. Just by exploring the problem intelligently, you invite the other person to stumble upon the right solution.
  • Third, sharing an observation without trying to solve the problem deepens your understanding of the work. In many cases, what seems like a problem is actually a feature you don’t fully understand. Sometimes, that feature gives rise to new and better ideas. Part of acknowledging your biases is not jumping too quickly to identify problems or commit to solutions.

In general, here’s a simple pro-tip for this stage: Ask lots of questions.

Questions are portals to understanding. They also defuse the tension of assuming a problem that isn’t there or advocating for a solution that might not fit. “Is there a reason you put your work experiences at the bottom?” will get you much further than “I think people won’t read your resume unless you put them near the top.” That might actually be a fair criticism — but see how framing it as a question paved the way for it to be more meaningful?

I was checking out a friend’s storytelling website recently when I noticed that the transitions from page to page made it hard to track the narrative. I had a couple ideas on how to improve that, but I started just by sharing that observation with my friend. The moment he saw the problem, he had a solution ten times better than mine. Even better, he solved a related problem he didn’t even know he had: getting users to read more than one story at a time. All my friend needed was to see the problem through someone else’s eyes. The solution — which neither of us could have come up with beforehand — was entirely his own. Which is exactly how it should be.

So always separate out these two stages. Understand before you critique, and diagnose before you solve.

Focus on possibilities more than recommendations.

Most feedback is solution-oriented. But most projects, situations and goals don’t benefit from one solution — at least not in the feedback stage.

For one thing, we can be right about a problem but wrong about its solution. (This is true in our personal lives, and it’s true of the world generally — just turn on the news!). In fact, I’d argue that two-thirds of the notes I’ve gotten in my life have been dead-on about something I needed to fix, but wrong about how to actually fix it. Which is just fine, because fixing it is ultimately up to the person receiving the feedback, as we mentioned earlier.

For another, it’s rarely the case that one recommendation actually works. In the case of most interesting problems, there are usually multiple right solutions. (Again, turn on the news. And think back to how many different ways you could have handled a difficult family member, a tough first draft, or a break-up. Life is complicated. So are its solutions.)

Which is one more reason not to get too attached to our recommendations. Instead, I try to focus on possibilities.

Possibilities are practical ideas in flux: the raw stuff of problem-solving that hasn’t quite calcified into solutions. They usually take the form of open-ended questions and statements like:

  • “Have you thought about doing it this way?”
  • “I wonder what would happen if you tried this.”
  • “What’s the benefit of keeping it the way it is?”
  • “What risk do you run if you do it another way?”
  • “Let’s explore both options and see which one seems more exciting.”

Focusing on possibilities over recommendations — pure process-oriented feedback — is one of the best ways to do everything we’ve discussed in this piece: understand someone’s intentions, more deeply appreciate their work, diagnose before criticizing, and empower rather than dictate.

If you give criticism in this way, then your recommendations become the by-product of the conversation — not the point of it.

I’ll say that another way, because it’s super important.

If you approach feedback as an open, process-oriented exploration between two minds, then the right solutions tend to emerge on their own.

Which explains why some of the greatest feedback-givers I’ve met never offer solutions. Instead, they stay in the zone of possibility, inviting the other person into a space of play and exchange.

Take writer-director Nancy Meyers, for example. When she was writing the movie Something’s Gotta Give — which went on to make $267 million at the box office and win tons of awards — she shared a draft of the script with James L. Brooks, one of the greatest storytellers in history, and he read the script and he came over to my house and he stayed about six hours and we sort of went through it. He had such good ideas, really good ideas. He’s an interesting note-giver because he gives you absolutely no solutions to anything. But he says, “Is there something in the idea of…?” You know, like that kind of a conversation. And then I spent another month based on the six hours he was at my house.

Six hours. Tons of questions. No solutions.

But Meyers took those possibilities, explored them, and decided on the right solutions on her own. And that produced the sort of decisions that made Something’s Gotta Give one of the most successful romantic comedies in history.

Group your feedback into themes.

As you offer feedback, it’s tempting to deliver a straightforward list of notes. Usually that list will follow your own experience of the project — the order of a story, say, or the UX of an app. You’re basically offering thoughts from the perspective of a user or consumer, which makes sense.

After delivering notes like this for years, I noticed that my notes had a diminishing marginal return. The longer the notes were, the less they started to mean. They also didn’t reflect the importance of the notes or their relationship to one another, which was making them way less useful.

So I started doing something new.

After I collected all my feedback, I took an extra 10 minutes to group them into three larger categories, using the simple but effective Rule of Threes. Then I’d discuss my feedback at the level of the categories, delving into the specifics of the feedback as needed in a way that connected them to the bigger picture.

Those categories could follow any logic that serves the project in question:

  • Themes, impacts, and problems
  • Characters, plot, and vision
  • UI, process flow, and retention

I like to take this one step further, and build my observations and recommendations into the categories. That way, the categories capture the recommendations/outcomes I’d be interested in seeing:

  • Develop more compelling themes, highlight clearer impacts, and resolve narrative problems
  • Deepen characters by adding backstory, enhance the plot with new storylines and action, and articulate a clearer vision in the final scene
  • Make the UI more friendly, streamline the process flow, and beef up customer retention

Then, under each of those categories, I’d group all the specific notes that would accomplish those objectives. (That doesn’t mean I’m committing to recommendations — only that I have a working theory of what would improve the project, and specific ideas for how to do it.)

The particular categories you use matter less than the fact that you’re categorizing. The idea is to frame my feedback holistically, and avoid the dreaded “laundry list” of notes, which doesn’t have a cohesive logic at all.

Cyrus, an AoC alum, recently sent me his company’s pitch deck for a new children’s toy. The pitch deck was pretty extensive: it included a market overview, a customer analysis, a product deep-dive, a marketing plan, and a strategic roadmap for the next three years. It was insanely impressive and had obviously taken a lot of work. He invited me to give him my thoughts, so I read the deck, jotting down notes along the way.

When I was finished, I had five pages of notes that roughly followed the order of the slides. I could have emailed them over and let him make sense of them, but even I was having trouble tracking what the larger point of my feedback was. So I took a few moments and re-organized the notes into three buckets: Writing, Aesthetics, and Structure.

Under the Writing category, I grouped all my notes on the language, tone and word choice of the deck. Under Aesthetics, I gathered all my visual notes on the impact, layout and images of the slides. Under Structure, I grouped all my thoughts about the organization, flow and storyline of the deck. Suddenly, my notes became much clearer and way more actionable.

And I could see the difference in the way Cyrus responded. He hit me back immediately thanking me for the super clear notes. A few weeks later, he said the partners he was meeting with really responded to the new deck. Interestingly, he only took about half of my notes, but the thematic grouping helped him implement the ones he agreed with — which is exactly the point.

So before you give feedback, take your notes up one level and group them logically into simple, logical buckets. If you can articulate your observations and recommendations in those buckets, even better. The impact of your feedback will increase tenfold, and the other person will notice the difference.

Go toward the light.

The hardest part of giving feedback — particularly when it’s negative — is being honest in your criticism without hurting, confusing or disempowering the other person. That’s why the compliment sandwich has hung on for so long. We know that our words have a great deal of power, and we want to protect the objects of our feedback.

So the question becomes: How can we give authentic criticism without hurting people’s feelings?

The answer is our intention.

From the very beginning of this piece, we’ve been talking about a dynamic, connected, process-oriented approach to feedback that helps avoid the pitfalls of traditional criticism. Baked into all of these principles is a new intention that we could describe as thoughtful, connected, honest, other-focused, and open-ended.

In other words, empowering.

That’s what the compliment sandwich glosses over. We can flank our criticisms with flattery and praise all we want, but if our intention isn’t to empower the other person — creatively, emotionally, spiritually, professionally — then it doesn’t matter how positive or accurate or interesting our feedback is.

What do I mean by empowering feedback? I like to think of it in terms of the other person’s mindset at the end of the conversation. Are they more excited to work on the project? Has the conversation given them more fruitful ideas to explore? Has their sense of curiosity deepened? Are they clearer about what they want to achieve with this project? If so, then the feedback is empowering: it’s given them more power.

Let me tell you a quick story.

I was recently sitting with a broadcasting friend going over some notes she had on recent episodes of the show. (This is a regular process for me, and one of the best ways I’ve found to develop as a host.)

She brought up an especially interesting moment in a recent interview, where I asked a tough question that my guest basically dodged. I tried asking the question in a different way — even making a joke to defuse some of the tension — but kept getting stonewalled. The guest closed up, the moment passed, and I missed a huge swath of interesting territory that I had really hoped to explore in this interview.

My friend and I played with a few ways I might have gotten an answer out of my guest — different questions I could have asked, more subtle tactics I could have tried, even the option of calling him out for dodging the question.

But what I remember most about that feedback session is my friend bluntly forcing me to realize that I had let my guest control the conversation, when it’s my job was to get the most interesting answers out of him.

Was that fun to hear? Nope. Was it easy to internalize without getting angry? Definitely not. Can I say that I know how to handle that situation perfectly now? Honestly, I don’t.

But I also remember leaving that conversation wondering about the solution. I remember feeling a deeper appreciation for how weird and complicated the art of interviewing is. In a weird way, I was kind of excited for another guest to try and dodge a question. Even if I didn’t know how to avoid that mistake, I wanted to see if I could try.

How is that possible? How did my friend turn a blistering criticism into a motivating force?

The answer, I realized, is that she was as obsessed with solving my problem as I was.

Where a less thoughtful critic might have said, “Wow dude, you really blew it. Next time, call your guest out and don’t let that moment pass,” my friend was actually excited about diagnosing the issue and playing around with different solutions. I can see her face in that conversation as I write this — frustrated that I let that moment go, intent on figuring out how to capture it in the future, and jazzed about making me a better interviewer.

“I love this stuff so much,” she said in the middle of our conversation. “Just think how much better your interview game will be the next time this happens.”

Because she wanted me to be better, I wanted to be better too. Her intention infused every question, observation and recommendation with a sense of possibility and wonder. That’s why it’s important to come from the right place when we give feedback.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the project in question becomes easier. And it doesn’t mean that the other person will always feel like rainbows and sunshine. I’ve left tons of feedback sessions feeling more overwhelmed, more confused, more aware of how difficult the task is. Sometimes, that’s what criticism does. It forces you to step deeper into the complexity of what you’re trying to accomplish. That can be scary, and it doesn’t always feel “good.”

But when those feelings are also accompanied by excitement and curiosity — when they are coupled with new possibilities or lines of inquiry — when they make you feel more connected to someone else who wants to see you succeed — then you’ve probably gotten feedback that came from a good place.

If we share ideas with the intention to empower — rather than to correct, be “right,” or zero in on the one solution we like — then our feedback will almost always have a positive effect on the other person, even when it’s negative, complicated, or difficult to hear.

I’ve been on the receiving end of light feedback that made me wonder why I even tried, and I’ve received deep criticism that made me want to keep going more than ever. The difference, in my experience, isn’t just the substance of the notes, but the spirit behind them.

Which makes intention that final and most important principle of killer feedback. If we can get that right, then all the other principles tend to fall into place, and start to work together to create truly meaningful criticism — one of the most important tools in our relationship-building toolkit.

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