Can We Talk? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback

Written by Mike Verano

Let’s face it, there are few words that strike as much fear into even the bravest of hearts than the simple phrase, “we need to talk.” Reflexively, lumps form in throats, hands sweat, chests grow tight and minds reel in an attempt to locate the error, faux pas or screw up that brought this about.  Why all the fuss? Why are intelligent, rational, mature adults so often tongue-tied when giving feedback and suffer from tinnitus when receiving it? Why is something so crucial, so often the source of conflict, tension and chest pains? Simply answered — because we’re not good at it.

Feedback, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is “helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance, product, etc.” However, feedback is also defined as “an annoying and unwanted sound.” Often, when someone hears the question, “can I give you some feedback?” they are preparing for the latter experience — ear plugs, please.

Some would suggest that feedback is just criticism dressed up to go to work. While it’s true that there is a fine line between critiquing someone’s work performance and taking their personal inventory, feedback is an art — music to the ears — whereas criticism is more like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard.  People are often hesitant to give feedback because they are afraid.

The person providing this vital information fears:

  • The other person’s reaction
  • Damaging the relationship
  • Losing control of the discussion
  • Whether they, themselves, are over-reacting
  • Hurting the other person’s feelings
  • Being seen as complaining, unhappy, or negative

On the receiving end there is also fear — fear that what is coming is going to be career limiting, or fear that someone has pierced one’s protective armor and is about to lay bare one’s soul. Often, it is the base fear that the other person is about to be as delicate as a root canal.

Receivers worry about:

  • Being overly defensive
  • Losing control of the discussion and oneself
  • Panicking and admitting to things that weren’t even brought up
  • Getting angry and turning the tables (the adult version of “I know you are, but what am I?”)

Since fear has a way of shutting down both the signal sending and receiving functions of the brain, even the most causal feedback can become a distorted battle that leaves both parties feeling diminished.

Fortunately, the key to a positive feedback exchange is not having to conquer our fears. That could take years of psychotherapy, where a therapist is only going to offer, you guessed it, feedback. To improve the not-so-merry-go-round of giving and receiving feedback requires following a few basic rules.

For the sender these are:

  • Remove the volatile emotions
  • Use the Feedback Model—Observation, Impact, Suggestion
  • Ensure privacy
  • Deliver in a timely fashion
  • Be clear on why you want to give this feedback to this person at this time
  • Explore other options
  • Be prepared, but not scripted
  • Don’t beat around the bushFor the receiver:
  • Realize that your willingness to receive feedback is, itself, a plus
  • Understand that the sender might be more uncomfortable with the exchange than you are
  • Ask for clarification
  • Watch your body language
  • Don’t agree if you don’t agree
  • Don’t answer questions that aren’t asked
  • Say “thank you” only if you really mean itWhen all is said and done, feedback is to the workplace what oil is to your car. It’s not the driving force, but it makes things run smoother and without it, people just seize up and get stuck in unhealthy communication patterns.


About the author

Mike Verano

Mike Verano is a licensed therapist, certified employee assistance professional and cancer survivor. Mike is a member of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Inc. and a certified instructor of critical incident stress management.