Your go-to guide for giving effective constructive feedback

By Caroline Butterwick,
updated on Jan 15, 2024

Your go-to guide for giving effective constructive feedback

An essential guide to delivering effective assessments, and ensuring your words of wisdom don’t miss the mark

Whether it’s a colleague who needs guidance to improve their work, or a loved one asking for our honest thoughts on an idea they’ve had, we all have times where we need to give other people feedback. And, chances are, you’ve experienced the awkwardness and uncertainty about just how honest to be, along with anxiety around not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings.

But giving constructive feedback can be something hugely positive, for both you and the recipient. Feedback, when given correctly, helps people develop, encourages them, and enables them to address issues early on. So, how can we deliver constructive feedback most effectively for all involved?

Why it can be difficult to give feedback

“It can be hard to give negative feedback, both at work or when speaking to a friend or loved one about something they’re passionate about, without feeling like you’re raining on their parade,” explains counsellor Roxanne Black. “No one wants to be seen as a negative person, and I think that we are also aware that the person receiving the feedback can be sensitive to negative feedback, which can make the person offering feedback feel even more responsible.”

We can worry that our words will hurt the person, or that we won’t express ourselves in the right way. Most of us know the sting of criticism, so it’s natural that you would worry about upsetting someone with your review.

The importance of being honest

As challenging as it can be, constructive feedback is hugely important in so many different areas of life.

“Hiding your true opinion does two things,” explains Roxanne. “Firstly, it robs you of the opportunity to be honest about what you think. This can cause a person to become frustrated with themselves for not being honest, or feel guilt or discomfort as they watch the other person press ahead with an idea or course of action that may require further work.

“Secondly, it robs the other person of an opportunity to develop. They may think that because they have run their idea past you, and you’ve given it nothing but glowing praise, it requires no further work, and may ignore negative feedback from other parties, or experience embarrassment or disappointment further down the line if their idea is rejected or doesn’t work out.”

How to give someone constructive feedback

Roxanne outlines a scenario where you’re giving feedback on a colleague’s presentation, and how to best structure your feedback so it’s both sensitive and helpful.

She recommends starting with positive feedback first – this could be something that you enjoyed or felt went well. So, for the presentation scenario, you could say something like: “I felt the layout of the presentation was very clear overall.”

“When giving negative feedback, start by using ‘I’ instead of ‘you’,” Roxanne explains. “So instead of saying ‘You didn’t explain the information on slide five very well,’ say, ‘I noticed that the information on slide five wasn’t as clear as the rest of the presentation, and that made it difficult for me to follow.’ Using an ‘I’ statement lets you be honest about a point you want to raise, without sounding like a criticism of the recipient.”

Next, look to give a suggestion for how to improve, such as: “If you were to use a graph alongside the text on that slide, it would make the information you’re trying to convey clearer.” This way the person has something tangible they can take away from the conversation that will help them move forwards.

“A quick way to remember is to use the acronyms WWW (What Went Well) for positive feedback and EBI (Even Better If) for negative feedback,” advises Roxanne.


How to be sensitive when giving feedback

Being sensitive and understanding when giving feedback is important. Chances are, the person has worked really hard on what they are sharing with you, and it’s understandable that they may find it challenging to hear anything that isn’t praise, even if you do your best to be constructive.

“Make sure that the feedback you are giving isn’t personal. Your aim isn’t to criticise the person, it’s to give them feedback that they can utilise,” Roxanne suggests.

Keeping the purpose of the feedback in your mind can help, too. “Remember the feedback needs to benefit the recipient’s goals, not focus on yourself,” says Roxanne. “So mentioning that you don’t like the colour scheme used in a presentation because it’s not to your taste, is not helpful feedback.”

Sometimes, there may be several points for negative feedback that you want to give. In this situation, Roxanne recommends focusing on two or three of the most pertinent points, so the person receiving the feedback doesn’t feel too disheartened or overwhelmed.

Feeling more comfortable when giving feedback

Of course, you may still feel awkward or uncomfortable about giving feedback, and that’s understandable.

“Remember why you are giving feedback: you’re offering feedback that will help the recipient to develop and improve,” advises Roxanne. She points out that the more you practise giving constructive feedback, the more comfortable you’ll become.

“You can control how you deliver constructive feedback, but you are not responsible for how the other party receives said feedback,” Roxanne says. “If you have done your best to ensure that your feedback is delivered sensitively and helpfully, then you have done all you can.”

Constructive feedback is helpful for everyone involved, so the next time someone asks for your thoughts, remember the difference you can make.

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