I've had parts of this blog saved in draft form since October, 2007. The topic is feedback. I've been trying to figure out how best to write it in a relatively short form. This topic was a multi-hour class when I worked at Disney. These are just a couple of key points. By no means is it the end-all, be-all on this topic, but hopefully it will be a helpful start and encourage you to read-up on the subject for more details.
Feedback isn't easy to give properly and it's even harder to hear. I know, sounds like I have a firm grasp of the obvious here. In working with the grad students at OU, even at their age it wasn't something that I ever saw any of them able to give without getting personal. It's even less likely that younger students are going to figure it out without some coaching. I don't think it's something that is taught at school. In the workplace, it's only taught in companies with well-established training programs.
One of the things that I learned was to first ask, "Do you mind if I give you some feedback?" The idea is that no one is going to say "no." (I've never had anyone answer "no" to this question.) We all want to receive feedback, or at least we think we do. When the person answers "yes," she's given you permission. Remember, though, that it's permission to give feedback, not permission to attack her.
When giving feedback, you can't get personal with it. The feedback should be about the person's actions, not the person. It's not an opportunity to attack the other person, make her feel bad, or show how superior you think you are to her. Whatever it is that the person did or didn't do, it likely wasn't malicious. Often, people honestly don't know that they've done something wrong or annoying because no one has ever told them. One way you keep the feedback from being a personal attack is by relating it back to yourself and using non-accusatory phrases. What I mean by this is that you use phrases such as "I felt like" and "It seems like" and "I'm sure it wasn't your intention, but..." rather than using accusatory phrases and saying that they "did" such and such. An example:
"I'm sure it wasn't your intention, but when you made that comment in front of the staff, I felt like you were undermining my position."
If you've watched "The Last Lecture" by Dr. Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon (and if you haven't, you should), he tells a story about one of his mentors giving him feedback. Dr. Pausch acknowledged that he was quite arrogant as an undergrad. Instead of his mentor telling him that he was being a jerk and isolating people, his mentor told him, "It's a shame that people perceive you as so arrogant. It's going to limit what you're able to do in life." He didn't say you're an arrogant jackass, but he said the same thing without trampling all over his emotions. Not many of us have a real idea of how people perceive us.
In order to receive feedback, you truly have to be open to it. When it's given properly, you can't take it personally, either. You can't get defensive and try to defend your position or offer excuses, especially if you've asked for feedback or said yes to receiving it. Feedback is a gift, and it's a scarce one. You have to let that person speak, absorb it, and thank them for the feedback. Remember, it's not about what you meant to do or say, it's about what others perceive you meant. This is also not the time for you to turn around and give them feedback.
Unfortunately, one of the things you're inevitably going to face is people to whom you give feedback, but who will perceive any feedback as an attack. To this I can only say that at least you're trying. Just be the bigger person and don't let it escalate.
I'll have more on feedback in the next posting.