Giving Better Feedback

By Sarah Sunu

Jun 5, 2023


Minute Read


It is a truth universally acknowledged that constructive feedback is valuable for learning and improving. At COMPASS, we think it’s so important that it’s a core part of our workshops. But like a lot of things, it’s not always easy to know how to give good feedback. 

That’s why, before we ask people to give each other feedback, we take some time to talk about what good feedback actually is. Because as we’ve likely each experienced, feedback comes on a spectrum of useless to useful.  When we’re asked to give feedback, we want to be sure that we’re honoring both the request and our time. 

Ultimately really good feedback is focused on working with someone to get it right, rather than being right. You want to help them express their thoughts in a way that builds shared understanding, without changing their meaning or putting words in their mouth. 

That doesn’t mean that you let errors or confusing things slide, or that you don’t suggest big changes that will help the ideas come through more clearly and effectively. That’s part of good feedback too. But it is all in service to the goal of communicating strategically and compassionately.

So with all that in mind, when someone asks for our feedback, where do we start? 

When I’m giving feedback, the guiding questions I have in my head are: 

  • What is the purpose? Is it clear to me? 
  • What is the take away? Are they speaking to what matters to the people they’re trying to reach?
  • What is confusing? What is missing? Are there key questions that are likely to come up that aren’t being answered?
  • Is it clear what they want the listener or reader to do next? 

Then when it comes to providing my feedback, I try to follow these principles: 

1. Purpose

It’s always a good idea to find out what their purpose and goals are for their communication efforts. Why is this important to them, and what do they want to happen because of it? Then, when you’re reviewing and giving feedback, use that as a lens for what’s important to share. Sometimes we can get caught up in making changes that reflect how we personally would say it, when that’s not the point. Using purpose as a scale to judge our comments — will this piece of feedback better serve their purpose, or not? — helps us to decide whether it’s worth sharing. 

2. Honesty

It doesn’t do us any favors to avoid giving feedback that’s important but hard. We can be considerate and compassionate while still pointing out issues and challenges with an idea or message, and we can work together to get it right.

3. Humility

This goes hand-in-hand with honesty. No one can know everything. We have to stay aware of that, and to share our feedback with humility and respect for the fact that we can’t know for sure how a message will land with people in advance. Again, good feedback is about working together to get it right, rather than trying to be right about everything. We’re all only human, living our lives filtered by our subjective perceptions!

4. Specificity

‘Great job!’ is pleasant but not specific. What did they do a great job of, exactly? Or if something isn’t working, taking the time to figure out what exactly is going awry, and ways to address it, is incredibly important and helpful. 

5. Utility

There are some things we can change, and some we can’t. Useful feedback acknowledges the constraints that someone is operating under, whether that’s a limit on time (feedback given too late isn’t useful), platform (telling someone they need visuals when that’s not an option for the format they’re sharing in, also not very useful), or innate attributes that the individual can’t change about themselves, like their voice (people’s voices are their voices, and other than encouraging them to breathe and pay attention to their speaking pace so that it’s not too fast for their listeners, there isn’t a lot that you can or should want to change about their voice!). 

Good feedback is an art, but we can bring more science into it by having a better understanding of what it is and isn’t, and how we can guide ourselves as we’re reviewing something for someone else. The only danger is that once word gets out that you give really helpful feedback, you’ll be asked to look at things often!

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