Feedback Without Personal Context

Ways of Working

I was chatting with an employee recently who shared a challenge they often face when giving feedback to others. They mentioned that when the response is "Can you be more specific about an example where this took place?" when they give feedback, they feel like their feedback is being dismissed or questioned. It's as though they have to prove that their feedback is worthy of discussion or "correct," leaving them feeling unmotivated.

I never thought about this perspective. It makes a lot of sense. I'm guilty of it myself, and since surfacing it, I've noticed it happening in conversations daily.

What's interesting about this interaction is that, most times, both people want the same thing; to work better together. However, when they communicate, their unique context gets in the way of the message.

It reminds me of a classic rom-com where the couple breaks up because of a misunderstanding, only to later realize they made a mistake. As the viewer, you know that neither of them wants the relationship to end; they just have no idea how the other is feeling. You wish you could step through the TV into their unrealistic, picturesque NYC apartment and scream, "Hey!!! She DOES want to be with you. She didn't answer your text because she thought you had feelings for your ex."

Exploring Context

I took this experience as an opportunity to explore the possible context that surrounds each person during the exchange. In this example, the feedback is between a junior designer and an account director.

The feedback: "I find it hard to get a word in when you're in meetings. Over time, this has made me feel like my opinion doesn't matter." 

Junior Designer: Giver

  • They are doing everything they can to deliver quality work and show their capabilities.
  • They're eager to grow in the role and learn new things every day.
  • Feedback is uncomfortable to them, but their manager has shown them how important it is to give feedback and do it directly.
  • They spent the night practicing how to deliver the feedback with their roommate.
  • They're feeling nervous and apprehensive about the conversation.

Account Director: Receiver

  • They want to support the team as much as possible.
  • They're still learning the ropes and trying to figure out how they fit into projects.
  • They often feel like they're talking to themselves in team meetings. They wonder if anyone cares about the work. They try to fix this by being louder and more enthusiastic.
  • They haven't had a lot of feedback from the team and wonder how they're doing.
  • They're excited to have a feedback conversation and are hungry for growth areas.

After the Junior Designer gives the feedback, the Account Director says: "I had no idea. Can you be more specific about an example where you felt this way?"

Imagine how this might go if neither shares what they're thinking? If they do?

Going Forward

When it comes to feedback, I find it liberating to put all of my relevant context on the table; so the other person has a chance to get inside my head. It can be hard to be this vulnerable, but the relief afterward is always worthwhile.

In terms of asking for examples, I don't think it's unreasonable when receiving feedback; it's just good to consider how the question may be received. 

When giving feedback, this insight has been a welcome reminder to be as specific as possible. Come prepared with the examples before ever being asked. It's natural to want to give high-level, vague feedback in fear of discomfort, but that can be hard for others to take action on. 

Here are some related posts on feedback:

Join My Newsletter

Every Monday, I share weekly themes and progress in running an agency business/team and doing my best to live a good life. Details