Ellie Mirman's Startup Marketing Blog

How to Give Feedback without Giving Feedback

Posted by Ellie Mirman

Feb 5, 2015


I got this simple tip from a coworker years ago and, to this day, I still use it. It was the first time I was learning how to run one-on-ones - not because I was managing anyone, rather, I was working so closely with this mentor and friend that we held two-way one-on-ones with each other. This proved to be quite useful as I started to manage direct reports.

Instead of giving feedback right away, he said, ask the person what feedback they have for themselves. 

What happens is that person goes through a self-reflection process and shares their thoughts on how they did (whether it's on a presentation or project or whatever else is in question). You may be surprised to find that they are completely aware and their self-feedback is in line with the feedback you would have shared with them. What's interesting about this interaction is that you don't even need to give feedback in the traditional sense. Even if the feedback is in line with what they thought, it's not always received positively. It can be seen as more critical and judgmental than when the person volunteers that same feedback.

From there, you can agree or disagree with what they share. And, in this case, your comments are in response to their thoughts, continuing the conversation and reflection.

There are all different methods to giving feedback effectively, one of the most popular being the "sandwich method", but I love this reverse feedback approach for its neutral and constructive style as well as its encouragement of self-reflection. This practice not only makes it easier to get your point across, it also teaches that person to reflect on their work and provide feedback for themselves - a critical skill for self-development in one's career.

An Example

One of my most memorable experiences of this method - on the employee rather than manager side of the table - happened with a different boss. I went into my quarterly review and we started with having me share my thoughts on my performance over the previous few months. I shared some of my successes as well as some of the areas I thought were lacking. At the end of my self-reflection, he stated: You said it better than I possibly could. He elaborated and we took the conversation into how to address this area of improvement. 

It wasn't until later, when the digital copy of my review was sent to me, that I saw what he had planned to share. While the message was very much the same, I still had difficulty stomaching it. Somehow it came across as more harsh when it was in someone else's voice rather than my own. I had been glad for our in-person experience and the opportunity to be the first to recognize and share what I needed to improve.

Action Items

If you're interested in implementing this style of feedback, I'd recommend these two action items:

  1. When running reviews, gather 360 degree feedback - that means gathering feedback from one's peers, managers, direct reports, and themselves. This formalizes the self-reflection process and gives the employee time to think about their successes and areas of improvement.
  2. When you'd like to provide feedback on a recent performance, presentation, or project, start by asking your coworker: How do you think it went? What do you think you did well? What do you want to improve? Only after they share their thoughts do you jump in to add.

Photo credit: Dennis Skley 

Topics: management

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