My roommate and I always give totally honest reviews of each other's cooking. But it's a little easier to tell someone their tomato sauce is too salty than to give feedback in a professional context, where your feedback is about someone's livelihood.
I asked professionals across industries to share stories of effective feedback they've received. Here, I'll share the examples that will help you deliver feedback your recipient can stomach—and grow from.
1. Effective feedback is all about delivery
Feedback is only effective if the person is receptive to it. And to get a receptive reaction, you need to overcome barriers such as distrust, confusion, and doubt. When you focus on building trust, you can lessen the feeling of rejection—one of the biggest and most relatable barriers to receiving feedback.
Your delivery goes a long way in removing all these barriers to effective feedback. The goal: to make the feedback feel more constructive than critical.
One way to do this is to phrase it as a question. Writer Damilare Olasinde has a client who regularly phrases his feedback as suggestions or questions. For example, one time, he commented with feedback to the effect of "Is this relevant? Why don't we go straight to discuss the three types of ABC and then include any insights from XYZ." Damilare says, "I find this tactic effective because it delivers his criticism without damaging my confidence. It also allows me to clarify any misinterpretations and share my reason for specific actions."
Another tactic: balancing negative feedback with positive feedback. When Lindsay Davis from Icons8 looked for a job, one interviewer's feedback stuck. "The interviewer didn't solely focus on my weaknesses," Lindsay says. "She pointed out my strengths and told me how I can align them with my future career choices. And that's worked because it let me know that focusing on my strengths and embracing who I am is sometimes a better strategy than a never-ending struggle with weaknesses."
When you do need to focus more on negative aspects than positive aspects, you can balance your delivery by maintaining a neutral tone. Product launch consultant Ken Savage recounts, "I once received feedback about negativity in the workplace, and though it would be easy to take this kind of feedback personally, the person did an excellent job at explaining the situation from a neutral point of view. [I] was able to see the situation as it is and very quickly act on the feedback and make sure the mistake never happened again."
2. Effective feedback sets recipients up for future success
In many situations where you give feedback—including the workplace—you might find yourself giving the same feedback over and over again.
You can mitigate this by delivering feedback that helps the person develop habits to succeed in the future—for both of your sakes. It also doesn't hurt that feedback focused on future actions (versus past performance) is shown to be more effective because it removes the barriers to effective feedback I talked about earlier.
Some of this process will depend on the structure of your and your recipient's jobs. In his article on giving designers feedback as a marketer, Chris Gillespie at Fenwick emphasizes understanding how the design workflow works. Giving them organized feedback early in the design process sets them up for a successful design overall.
The best feedback is made with the goal of making future collaboration better in the long term.
Rachel Go, Content Strategist
Content strategist Rachel Go has found that the most effective feedback for her focuses on helping her improve as a writer, content marketer, and marketing director. She says:
"The best feedback is made with the goal of making future collaboration better in the long term.
As a writer, that meant feedback that was actionable, and my editors, instead of simply fixing my mistakes because it was quicker, explained why they want XYZ adjustments, and then let me do it to learn. In the short term, it makes the editing process longer, but in the long term, it meant fewer edits needed.
As a content marketing manager, good feedback from my marketing director came backed with statistics. I got feedback alongside metrics that directly related to the company's success, so I could see how my work affected revenue and other big KPIs. This feedback paired with concrete evidence helped drive home the importance of continuous improvement and how incremental changes turned into big wins.
As a marketing director, good feedback from my founders usually comes in the form of how to be a better manager. Feedback feels more like conversations and brainstorming but with the goal of improving my effectiveness as a manager."
Consider the future impact of your feedback on your recipient's work. Does it offer information that will help them change their behavior in the future? If so, everyone wins.
3. Effective feedback comes from an empathetic place
Effective feedback is a back-and-forth process. When you offer feedback, don't think of it as "correcting" what they're doing. Instead, focus on helping the other person and understanding their point of view. Even just switching your mindset from "that's wrong" to "tell me more" can make a huge difference.
For Kris Lippi of ISoldMyHouse.com, one of the most valued times he received feedback involved someone truly dedicated to helping him. He created his company's previous website design and received a comment in an email about his brokerage's services that said: "I did have some issues using your website. I wish it was more user-friendly than it is now. If you have time, you can reply to this email and we can talk about some improvements your website can have."
When Kris responded to the email, the client walked him step-by-step through his feedback, which he found incredibly valuable. "What made it effective feedback for me is the client's willingness to help me out. It only shows how much they value what I can give to them, and they want my company to help others the way we helped them," Kris explains.
4. Effective feedback shares your opinion (when warranted)
Jennifer Porter values feedback based on facts over opinion. That's solid advice when that opinion is about the person. But if your recipient is facing a problem with multiple possible solutions, your opinion on the situation can offer them a new angle to work with.
Getting good feedback, in my opinion, means seeing the same problem but from different angles and perspectives.
George Makkoulis, Keragon
When George Makkoulis performed the initial market discovery for his healthcare startup, Keragon, the 300+ industry experts he talked to had a wide range of opinions on the American healthcare market. While some discouraged him from starting a business in the industry altogether, others saw a lot of opportunity:
"At the beginning, this was overwhelming. But then I quickly realized that this is some of the best feedback I could receive. I then changed my frame of mind and realized that everyone had their own perspective and they were helping me understand a very complex space from different angles. So then, at follow-up discussions, I was asking many 'whys?' and trying to unravel the different angles."
For George, these discussions were foundational in building Keragon. Some of his favorite feedback is opinionated. "Everyone has their own opinion and their own biases. Including myself. Getting good feedback, in my opinion, means seeing the same problem but from different angles and perspectives," he says.
You have a unique perspective. As long as you're empathetic and constructive, that viewpoint will give the person receiving your feedback a new angle to work with.
5. Effective feedback is specific and actionable
Effective feedback offers specific examples and solutions, so the person you're giving feedback to knows what to do to improve. Knowing exactly what they did that they can improve on—and what actions to take to improve—helps recipients actually apply feedback.
In an interview with CNBC, a TopResume career expert recommends providing examples and solutions in a caring manner to empower someone to improve. She differentiates "constructive" feedback from "destructive" feedback based on specificity.
Constructive feedback provides specific examples of the mistakes the person made and follows up with suggestions for improvement.
Destructive feedback involves broad and purely negative statements.
Katie Bray from Flying Cat Marketing breaks down what made one instance of feedback specific and actionable for her:
"1. They asked if they could give me the feedback. We weren't already in conversation, so it was coming out of the blue. This made sure I was ready to listen and also made me feel like they cared if I cared and weren't just trying to push their opinion on me (e.g., 'Can I give you some feedback about your presentation?')
2. They mentioned a specific behavior. They stated facts and not their thoughts. (e.g., 'The first slide was full of words and diagrams.')
3. They stated why that had an impact. (e.g., 'It was difficult to read the slide and listen to you at the same time. It's easy to get distracted if there's so much info to look at on the screen and also try to listen to everything you're saying')
4. They offered a solution. (e.g., 'I find it more effective when I only have a headline or one diagram on each slide, and the rest I can explain in words and I know I have everyone's full attention.')
5. They checked in with how I received that. (e.g., 'What do you think? Can you see how it might have been too much information?')"
Notice that one of these steps was providing a solution, which Elizabeth Pharo of Divorce.com also agrees is a characteristic of effective feedback. When her company released a new feature, one user shared an issue he had with it. "He pinpointed the problem—the feature couldn't track case progress accurately, causing user frustration," Elizabeth says.
"What stood out in his feedback was his solution—a straightforward but effective concept of adding a visual timeline. His idea tackled the problem directly and provided a solution that would improve the user experience," she explains.
Effective feedback requires trust and vulnerability
What makes my roommate and me able to give each other candid feedback about our food is the same thing that makes each of these tips so helpful: good feedback acknowledges the trust and vulnerability that goes into the process through good-faith communication and the drive to help another person. Be transparent and kind, and your feedback will go much further.
This article was originally published in September 2017 by Jory MacKay. The most recent update was in July 2023.