Give Constructive Feedback Without Sounding Like a Jerk

Giving negative feedback is difficult. Few people enjoy telling others what they do wrong. If you’re like me, dishing out negative feedback goes something like this and is anything but constructive:

• You dance around the issue.
• You offer unnecessary praise to soften criticism.
• You say: “I wish,” “You need to,” or “You shouldn’t”
• You use absolutes: “always,” “never,” “every day,” “everyone”

The point of feedback is to provide the opportunity to improve. And, it turns out that many people in the workplace – especially Millennials – are interested in receiving constructive feedback. According to a PwC report conducted by Opinion Research, Millennials welcome and expect detailed, regular feedback and 51% of those questioned said that feedback should be given very frequently or continually on the job.

Giving negative feedback can be uncomfortable for both sides, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead of looking at criticism as only positive or negative, look at it as constructive.

Here’s how to differentiate between disapproval, disagreement and direction, and provide feedback that will be clear, consistent and constructive:

1. ACKNOWLEDGE THE GOOD, NOT ONLY THE BAD.
Sandwich the “bad” between the “good.” Start by focusing on strengths. Then provide criticism. Lastly round it off with a reiteration of the positive comments you gave earlier and results that can be achieved if the criticism is accepted.

2. BE HONEST, AVOID MIXED MESSAGES.
Be respectful, specific and clear. Don’t hint. When sandwiching negative feedback with positive, avoid transitions like “but,” “however,” and “although.” For example, “You worked hard on this, but…” When you phrase feedback like this, you essentially tell the person to dismiss everything you just said. Don’t feel the need to over compensate to cushion your criticism.

3. BE CLEAR IN YOUR FEEDBACK, DON’T IMPLY.
Avoid phrases like “You need to…” Messages like this suggest something was wrong but doesn’t explain what or why. Feedback is meant to be performance-based. Help the person by providing clear direction on exactly what needs improvement and how to do it.

4. FOCUS ON THE ISSUE, NOT THE PERSON.
Feedback should stay information-specific and issue-focused. Since both praise and criticism are based on personal judgments – one favorable, one unfavorable – it’s essential that feedback reflect the issue at hand, not the person.

5. FOCUS ON THE FUTURE, NOT THE PAST.
Your feedback should reflect the current situation, not past experiences. Keep the conversation in the here and now. Bringing up prior missteps only take focus away from the current ones.

6. OBSERVE, DON’T ASSUME.
Your job in providing feedback is to be factual, not judgmental. State what you see, not what you think. Avoid phrases like “I think you were trying to say…” People are much more receptive to observations than assumptions.

As a general rule of thumb, whenever possible, provide feedback face-to-face. Just like an email or text can be misinterpreted, so can constructive feedback if not given in person. Talk through the issues together, and make sure the person understands and has the opportunity to ask questions.

Feedback fuels improvement and providing it doesn’t have to be a cringe-worthy process. By practicing the above tips, you’ll be able to give constructive feedback that your colleagues desire and respect without stepping on any toes.

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Abby Downs

Abby Downs is a St. Louis native and professional writer. If she doesn’t have a pen in her hand, it’s a camera. When she’s not busy combining these two loves, she can be found binge-watching 90s sitcoms, trying new cheeses and planning her next big adventure.