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Six Keys to Life-Changing Feedback

Even though it is not always easy, when you offer and receive feedback with genuine intent, it can be a life-changing gift.

a watering can sprinkles water onto a poppy in a garden

Three months into one of my first executive roles, I heard these words come out of my boss’s mouth:

“John, I’d like to give you some feedback in our next one-on-one.”

“Sure, sounds great!” I lied through my teeth.

Up to that point in my finance career, I figured an offer for feedback meant a trip to the woodshed. The mere mention of feedback was more likely to wrench my stomach with anxiety than cue visions of imminent success. Maybe you have felt that way yourself a time or two.

Over my 20+ years as a CFO at Fortune 100 companies, and in my work coaching executive leaders, I have found that many people do feel that way. They get very apprehensive whenever someone offers to give them feedback, since in their experience, it often translates to “I’m about to give you a good swift kick in the pants!”

No wonder so many capable and high-performing business people hate the thought of getting feedback.

Believe it or not, the idea of giving feedback can be just as unpleasant for those same executives. This is because many assume that giving feedback is the same as reprimanding – and they simply don’t like getting after people. Or they feel that giving feedback is out-and-out impolite,

But when given clearly, compassionately and constructively, feedback is a potentially life-changing gift. It can truly be one of the kindest things one person can do for another. By the same token, withholding feedback can be inadvertently malicious, because it may rob someone of a significant opportunity for growth and learning.

One of the most gratifying things I do in my work with senior executives is helping them open their hearts to the gift of feedback – both giving and receiving it. Over the years, I’ve developed Six Keys to Life-Changing Feedback. Here they are:

Three Keys to Giving Life-Changing Feedback

1) Be sure that your heart is in the right place.

When your listeners trust that you have their best interests at heart, they will be more likely to take your advice, instead of just smiling and nodding. Check your motives for giving feedback and make sure that your real intent is to help the other person learn and grow, not just to admonish them. If you genuinely care about their development, they will sense it in your voice and demeanor. If you are not, they will sense that too.

2) Be specific.

Few things are more frustrating than vague or euphemistic feedback. Rather than say, “You need to be more diplomatic,” give clear-cut examples that illustrate when your listener was tactless, and suggest specific improvements to behaviors or wording.

3) Be timely.

Don’t save up your feedback for performance appraisal time or some other formal moment – it will just get stale. Most people appreciate periodic, ongoing feedback so they can make course corrections in real time and avoid repeating mistakes. Likewise, prompt feedback demonstrates how much you care, as if to say, “Because I’m invested in your growth, I want to help you as soon as possible.”

Three Keys to Receiving Life-Changing Feedback

1) Keep an open heart.

It may seem difficult at the time, but try to listen for positive intent and generously give the benefit of the doubt to the other person. Try to step into their truth, even (and especially) if it feels a little hard to swallow. Above all, don’t get defensive, and be sure to thank them for their insights and advice graciously.

2) Verify what you heard.

Restate the feedback in your words to the other person. Check to make sure that your understanding agrees with theirs. This has two benefits. First, they will know that you were paying attention, ideally with the intent of making changes. Second, by confirming the message, you avoid working on the wrong things, only to frustrate both of you.

3) Commit to specific course correction.

Whenever possible, commit on the spot to make specific improvements that align with the feedback. Be clear about how you will make your improvements, and don’t make vague half-promises just to get the other person off your back.

Check your gut: are you truly committed to change? Can you deliver? Don’t make commitments that you can’t or won’t keep. If you feel that you can’t commit to specific improvements right then, commit to returning with a plan soon. Whatever promises you make, keep them.

The feedback I received from my new boss years ago was invaluable because of how he delivered it. He truly wanted to help me, he was specific about the improvements he wanted to see, and he provided his feedback in real time. Since he consistently repeated this approach, I learned to trust his feedback, and I believed that he valued me. What’s more, because I knew that he cared about my success, I was not only excited about implementing his suggestions, but I was eager to learn even more from him.

Start Reaping the Benefits of Life-Changing Feedback Today

With the Six Keys to Life-Changing Feedback in mind, I’d like to challenge you to put them into action.

The challenge is twofold. First, think of someone whose growth you genuinely care about – someone who could benefit from your insights – and using the Three Keys to Giving Life-Changing Feedback, offer to help them grow. Second, ponder any feedback that you’ve received but brushed aside. Reconsider how to apply it to your life, check for understanding and alignment with the giver, then let them know exactly what you plan to do with their advice.

Even though it is not always easy to hear or to give, when you offer and receive feedback with genuine intent, it can be a gift that is both priceless and enduring.

And when feedback lives in that selfless space, its power is virtually unlimited.


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