Constructive Feedback: Advice for Giving and Receiving

Regardless of it comes from a boss, colleague, friend or relative, constructive feedback can be hard to handle at times. Even though you may be self-aware and recognize the areas that need improvement, hearing it from someone else may sting. So how can you best accept and process someone’s feedback for improvement and growth?

The first step is to recognize the difference between constructive feedback and criticism.  

“The difference between constructive feedback and criticism is often the intent of why the information is being shared,” explains Dr. Courtney B. Johnson, a neuropsychologist at Indiana University Health. “With constructive feedback, the aim is likely to improve behavior or increase someone else’s awareness about a habit or behavior that is problematic or undesirable in some fashion.  With criticism, the feedback is provided, but it’s less likely to be delivered with the intent of helping someone else make a positive change.”

Once you’ve recognized that you received constructive feedback, it is important to understand that the intention is to help you. Dr. Johnson suggests that this can often soften the “blow” of feedback that may be hard to hear or unexpected, and it may help prevent strong negative emotional responses that make it more difficult to change your behavior.  If you don’t understand why you received that particular feedback, ask for specific behavioral examples of the problem as well as suggestions on how you could have handled or approached the situation differently.

“If the feedback really is constructive, it’s important to keep in mind that the intention is good, and not to harm,” Dr. Johnson advises.  “A boss providing constructive feedback indicates that they have a level of investment, even if for personal gains, in seeing improvements in you. Feedback from a colleague may be received sooner than from management or a boss, so it can be thought of as a positive warning. While constructive feedback from a friend or relative might sting the most because these relationships may be the most important to us. But, the goal is to improve a behavior or situation that may be problematic for you, for others or for both.”

Even if you disagree with what was said, feedback is still feedback, and it is your decision whether or not you need to change. However, who provides the feedback will often indicate your choice. For example, you are likely to modify your behavior for your boss, especially when placed on a performance improvement plan.

When looking to provide constructive feedback to others, there are many things to keep in mind. But first, give the person a warning that you will provide feedback so they are prepared to receive it. 

“Choose a time and place that it is private and comfortable for both of you,” Dr. Johnson recommends.  “Be direct and clear in your communication, and provide behavioral examples. Be prepared that the receiver may become defensive, and do your best to listen and allow them to process their reactions in the moment.  I recommend practicing what you want to say out loud before saying it to the other person, envisioning how they are likely to take the feedback. And, do your best to eliminate any obstacles to their being able to receive what you have to say accurately.  End the conversation with the invitation to provide further clarification as needed in the future.”

Whether giving or receiving, constructive feedback is best handled when both parties have a trusting relationship with mutual respect. Taking the time to understand each other is an important part of the process.

-- By Gia Miller


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