What perfect negative/constructive feedback looks like

Feedback is a sore topic for most people. No one likes to receive feedback which criticises (especially negatively) their work. This is why I would like to showcase here a perfect example of what superbly constructive feedback looks like and why I loved it so much.

I recently submitted a proposal for a talk at a STEM conference.

I drafted the workshop title and description I wanted to submit and I asked a lovely engineer I know, Jo Stanfield, to look it over before I submitted the proposal for assessment by the event panel.

Jo’s feedback was not only immensely helpful, but it embodied a perfect example of what constructive and genuinely helpful feedback looks like.

I wanted to showcase what exceptional feedback looks like to demonstrate how helpful feedback truly is when done properly.

My usual style is that I like to go straight to the heart of the issue. I have been told many times that I say what people really think but they would never dare say out loud, and this workshop title and description were no exception.

I asked Jo to talk me through the feedback over the phone, not just to send me her comments and suggestions in a word document.

The reason for this is twofold:

1. My brain processes much better information it hears than information it reads. (Other people’s brains are different. If you are someone who processes information better when it’s written, then asking for written information is what works for you. But there’s a catch with negative feedback receiving in writing, so I still think, if you can, have a chat through the written feedback you receive…see point 2 below.)

2. The limbic system (the emotional part of the brain) tends to “dramatize” feedback we get in writing, reading between the lines things in a much more negative way than the person commenting intended.
This often can make us feel demotivated and low after reading negative/constructive feedback, causing us to avoid future feedback or discussion altogether. But the trick is to ignore this fear the limbic system creates in our mind, and ask (if you know who gave you the feedback) to discuss through the written feedback. Do this in a meeting where your perspective will be not to challenge the feedback, but understand the thought process behind it and what “better” looks like. You will always find out more things through that discussion than by just reading the written feedback.

I recall some engineers saying to me during a workshop: “when I read the feedback they give me on code reviews, I feel crushed. I don’t even know how to brace myself for that kind of mental and emotional blow.” My suspicion is that this happens for two key reasons: the one I said above, i.e.: reading negative/constructive feedback (I will discuss the difference between these two types of feedback below) is amplified and made much worse in our minds than discussing it, because the mind adds negative nuances to the words that are much more negative than the person who wrote the feedback intended. The second reason is because we are often our worst critic and reading, black on white, something that says we are less than perfect is “evidence” the limbic system can hang onto to use to put ourselves down and erode our self-esteem then, but also later, when we feel down. Remember: the brain always likes to prove us right because it makes it feel safe that way.

I could talk about the emotional responses to feedback till the cows come home, but let’s go back to this particular example of what helpful feedback looks like.

Here’s the title I originally created:

Steamrollered & Intimidated: How to Respond when Challenged & Interrupted in Meetings

(The repetitive use of “&” was because I was desperately trying to fit within the 10 words limit of the submission software.)

Here’s why Jo’s feedback was exceptional:

1.

She chose specific words and was very clear about which parts of my title she is referring to, naming and highlighting the specific words of “steamrollered”, “intimidated” and “respond”. This way I knew exactly what she was talking about.

2. Once she highlighted the exact words, she explained her thought process and how they could land with the audience. She explained the reasoning behind her suggestions that followed.

Jo’s exact words on “steamrollered” and “intimidated” were: “I’m slightly worried that this might seem too extreme and participants may not want to confess to feeling quite this weak (even if they have done). Personally, if I was at a conference with a group of colleagues, I’d willingly confess to feeling steamrollered but might hesitate to say intimidated. Undervalued maybe?”

She made such a great point! My articles and workshop titles stand out because they hit at the heart of the issue, but in the context of a workshop, most people would not like to admit to colleagues that they felt intimidated.

Had she simply said: “the title comes on a bit strong” without any further explanation as to: what is strong, why is it strong, what would she suggest instead, her feedback would have not been helpful. But Jo nailed it!

She then picked up on another issue I had completely missed, the second half of the title: Jo’s comments on the word “respond” were: Could you say “regain control” — more proactive than “respond”?

Absolutely, why didn’t I think of that? What a superb suggestion! Makes total sense when you emotionally detach from the work you’ve written.

3. She gave me a suggested example of how I could redo it, how I could rename the title. This is the part that is often missed by those who give feedback. This is the “constructive” element of constructive (not negative) feedback. Without this constructive element, it’s simply negative feedback. Negative feedback is just criticising what you see, especially if you are vague about it, and on its own is not only unhelpful, but, in some circumstances, even demotivating and destructive. Constructive feedback is what really helps people move forward and improve. More often than I’d like, I have seen people giving negative feedback, without adding the constructive element by not making any suggestions as to what could be instead, even if they don’t provide accurate or usable examples, the person needs an example of what you mean. Some sort of “before” and “after” example.

She summarised her comments on the title by saying: “I also wonder if the title is a bit long with two &s.

Jo suggested having this title instead:

“Steamrollered & Undervalued: How to Regain Control in Challenging Meetings” asking me:does this still express what you want to say?”

4. She checked this feedback was fit for purpose and, throughout the feedback chat on the phone, she wanted to ensure I understood where she’s coming from. She checked her suggestion was aligned with what I was trying to achieve. Just telling someone to do something differently is not going to work if your suggestion is not fit for purpose, if it’s not implementable, if it’s not clear why and how your suggestion is different to what they had in the first place. She brought with me along with her throughout the feedback process.

My original title: “Steamrollered & Intimidated: How to Respond when Challenged & Interrupted in Meetings

Jo’s title: “Steamrollered and Undervalued: How to Regain Control in Challenging Meetings”

Which one would you chose? To me, hers sounds much more accessible than my original scary title.

I took her entire feedback on board without blinking an eye.

Now let’s see what the panel think. Wish me luck!