My best friend is a hell of a woman: known for being as direct as stepping on Lego bricks barefooted, but also someone people routinely go to for advice and feedback. I spent years wondering why it was that so many people sought her out to ask her to polish their work or tell them what they were doing wrong. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. Late one night, while sitting on a porch in the cold, she told me we should talk about communication.
She gave me her three principles for giving feedback:
- Is what you’re about to say honest?
- Is what you’re about to say necessary?
- Is what you’re about to say kind?
Currently, it’s mid-year review time, and I was having a conversation about gathering feedback with a fellow BuzzFeeder. I kept bringing up how important kindness is in the whole process, and they suggested I should write about it. When I sat down to write, I realized I couldn’t talk about kindness without talking about the other two aspects, so let’s dive in…
Is it honest?
Even though we’re thinking about feedback right now because it’s mid-year review time, there are many times feedback happens at BuzzFeed. From interpersonal feedback (like reviews) to code reviews, from design meetings to team meetings, giving good feedback is a crucial part of the day to day here.
As a reviewer, honesty includes reviewing the feedback you’re providing. Taking the time to sit down and look through it to make sure you’re not projecting assumptions on the work in front of you is a valuable exercise. It can often reveal comments that use words like “obvious,” “easy,” “simple,” or even “basic.” These words should be seen as flags for your understanding of the problem space and the assumptions you’ve made in regards to the other party’s knowledge. Frequently, examining them reveals that the assumptions are flawed, and thus potentially intellectually dishonest.
Honesty can also mean telling someone you’re not the right person to offer feedback. Whether it’s because the thing being reviewed isn’t an area of expertise you can speak on, or because you’re not able to give it full attention, honesty requires that if you can’t engage in the review with care and intent you should disclose. It’s better for everyone involved if the feedback comes from the right people.
Is it necessary?
Answering the question, Is it necessary, helps keep scope creep in check. It also reduces the cognitive and emotional stresses of seeking feedback by reducing the number of things someone has to actually be concerned with. It is much easier to go into a feedback session knowing that you’re only dealing with feedback on the thing you brought to the table. Think of it as minimizing the scope creep of the feedback itself.
This can be hard because human nature is to believe that if you see something that can be fixed you should say something. Unfortunately, the tendency to want to mention everything you see can actually dilute the effect of your feedback!
How do you figure out what’s necessary then? The person asking for feedback will tell you. If they bring you a draft blog post and say, “Hey, can you look this over and help me out with it,” they’re probably not looking for advice on how to expand their thesis to cover a tangential project you’re also working on. If someone asks for a code review, it wouldn’t be the time to look at the code surrounding what they wrote and point out that someone else poorly named variables and they should go in and change it just because they’re in there.
Is it kind?
Kindness often seems like the most difficult quality to exhibit in giving feedback.
When asked to give feedback, we all try to be helpful which is a major aspect of kindness. Whether it’s pointing out a mistake or weak area, or offering praise on something you’d like to see more of in the future, helpfulness in feedback is natural. I’ve definitely fallen into traps by being helpful to the exclusion of another major part of kindness: empathy.
Empathy in feedback starts with making sure that your feedback is balanced. That doesn’t mean that it has to be “all good” or even a majority good; rather, it means that your feedback calls forward the strengths you see as well as the weaknesses. Even if there are a lot of weaknesses and only a few strengths, highlighting both helps the person on the other end see where they can improve and where their skills are providing a good foundation for them to build on.
Empathy also means taking time to review your feedback before you send it. I first brought reviewing up in honesty, but it’s equally important for empathy. Make sure when you reread the feedback that you’re giving that you haven’t left comments that could be easily misinterpreted, or that seem confusing. If you review your feedback the day after you wrote it, and anything leaves you feeling like you have a question, that’s probably a place to revise.
At BuzzFeed we also exhibit another really strong part of empathy: the idea that feedback should strive to be blameless. If, on review, your feedback reads as though you are angry or disappointed, take that as a chance to drill in further and get to the real root cause. For example, feedback that someone “wrote bad tests” would go over poorly and wouldn’t lead to real change. On the other hand, revising that feedback and saying something like, “the tests for this code don’t cover the edge cases, which is an important part of testing,” gives the receiver something actionable and demonstrates that you care about their improvement, not just venting bad feelings.
Tying it all together!
So my best friend tells me all this about honesty, necessity, and kindness, and then she lays the secret of it on me — those are the same rules she uses for all communications. She just treats giving feedback as a communication exercise on hard mode. It completely reframed how I think about feedback and contextualized these guidelines as a framework for conversation.
Now, I approach feedback with these points in mind, and I ask myself if the things I’m about to say are honest, necessary, and kind, regardless of whether I’m the giver or the receiver. That seemingly small change in framing has taken feedback and reviews from a dreaded activity to something I look forward to, knowing I will come out of it smarter and better than I went into it.
[Originally posted at BuzzFeed Tech's Blog: https://tech.buzzfeed.com/essential-elements-of-giving-good-feedback-3e2722565887]