Posted by: Bill von Achen | April 23, 2010

Giving Better Feedback

It’s a truism, but nonetheless true, that effective communication is essential in building effective working relationships with others.  So it’s ironic that, with all the many ways that modern technology has given us to communicate with one another, many of us are so terrible at it.  As a result, our ability to work effectively with others is far less than it has the potential to be.

Of the many competencies required for effective communication, the ability to give and accept feedback may be the most important.  At a mechanical level, feedback affirms our understanding of what is being said, thereby providing a process for successfully moving through complex communications.  But giving good feedback also has the power to create an essential emotional context for our communications because it requires us to understand and acknowledge the views and opinions of others.

Writing in From King Arthur’s Round Table: How Collaborative Conversations Create Smart Organizations, David Perkins of the Harvard Graduate School of Education offers a simple process, called “the ladder of feedback,” that can improve the effectiveness of even our most routine conversations.  The ladder of feedback consists of the following four, simple steps:

Step 1: Clarify—Ask clarifying questions to be sure you understand the idea or matter at hand.  Be sure to avoid ‘clarifying’ questions that are merely thinly disguised criticism.

Step 2: Value—Express what you like about the idea or matter at hand in specific terms.  Don’t offer perfunctory praise like “good, but,” and then quickly move on to your criticisms.

Step 3: State Concerns—Then (and only then!), state your concerns.  Avoid absolutes (“What wrong with your idea is”), and instead use qualified terms (for example, “I wonder if…,” or “It seems to me that…”).  Avoid criticizing personal character or traits at all cost.

Step 4: Suggest—Make suggestions on how to improve things that build on the other person’s ideas.

In practice, you can often blend Step 3 (“State Concerns) with Step 4 (Suggest), stating your concerns first and then offering suggestions that address those concerns.

In four simple steps, the ladder of feedback process: 1) clarifies the idea under consideration; 2) identifies positive features that can be built upon; and 3) communicates suggestions toward improvement.  By following this process, you can dramatically improve the effectiveness of your communications with others, and build stronger working relationships at the same time.

What ideas and suggestions for improving the quality of feedback can you share?


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