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How to give feedback


We all know how important feedback can be. At work, at home, in the community...  The problem is, we might not always know how to give feedback, especially if its critical feedback or if we are afraid of the possible consequences.

One of the Systemic Modelling tools is Clean Feedback. This model separates feedback into three parts: evidence, inference or interpretation of the evidence and impact.

For example:

  • You have missed your deadline three times over the past month. (Evidence)
  • I’m thinking your project management skills are a bit rusty. (Inference)
  • I’m nervous about trusting you with this important project. (Impact)

What’s important about the Clean Feedback model is that it enables evidence-based feedback and creates a way for the giver of feedback to own the assumptions they are making about the available evidence. This is important. As developmental coach and author Jennifer Garvey Berger points out:

“You can’t tell the difference in a brain scan between somebody having an opinion and somebody remembering a fact. Our brains think they’re the same. So, we have to get really careful with what we think is an opinion and what we think is a fact.”

Jennifer Garvey Berger

Without the Clean Feedback model, I might give feedback to someone that I don't trust them with a project and treat it as fact that she isn’t reliable, when there might be other reasons for her missing deadlines that have nothing to do with her reliability. 

The Clean Feedback model forces us to separate evidence from the assumptions we’re making about it before we give our feedback.

However, while the model is super useful for raising the quality of our feedback, there are still other things to consider. When, for example, is a good time to give feedback? When would no good come out of giving feedback? What other principles can we apply that ensure we’re giving feedback that builds individuals or teams?

These were the questions a group of Systemic Modellers grappled with during an online course with Caitlin Walker.

And here are some of the rules for effective feedback the group came up with:

1. Good feedback is evidence-based

This is where the Clean Feedback model works like a charm. Feedback needs to be based on objective evidence that all parties concerned saw, heard, smelled or felt. If the evidence wasn’t available to one party, then it’s probably not a good idea to give feedback. If there isn’t agreement about what was witnessed as evidence, this might result in disputes about the feedback even before you begin. As Caitlin puts it, “I cannot give feedback that someone cannot verify.”

2. There’s a contract for giving that feedback.

That could be as simple as asking, “Can I give you some feedback?” or “Would you like some feedback?” and then waiting for a “Yes”.

Illustration by Mike Haber

Other contracts could come about if, for example, you’ve been hired as a consultant to give feedback on a project. Or there is already an existing relationship that allows for feedback to be given for example, between a mentor and apprentice, or a manager and subordinate. Or it’s a friendship where it’s been made explicit that for the relationship to thrive, both parties can give direct feedback. Or when someone has explicitly said, “I’d like some feedback on this.”

3. Purpose and context, or “What’s the feedback for?”

This could be reflected in the tone of, or what I like to describe as the energy behind, the feedback. For example, is the tone and purpose to shame or persecute, or to create a space for learning and curiosity?

In Systemic Modelling, feedback needs to be in the interest of an individual or group’s development. Caitlin explains, “You want them to be robust, and you don’t want to be giving them feedback that gives them trauma.” Indeed, research shows that both the giving and the receiving of feedback causes anxiety.

Liz Fosslien, www.fosslien.com

The question then is, what can we do to reduce the anxieties around receiving feedback so that they work better. Caitlin says, “It’s about curiosity, not contempt. It’s about shining a light on learning. It’s in service of the other person or the group.”

4. It’s also about timing.

Is the person or group ready for the feedback you want to give? For example, when I’m in a hurry or hungry is not the best time to give me critical feedback. Much better to give the feedback when I’m experiencing less stress and am better able to think about the value of your feedback.

Another way to think about timing and readiness is to use this metaphor my friend Suzi Sharples once shared with me, “Don’t try to drive a 2-tonne lorry of feedback over a 1-tonne bridge!” 

Illustration by Mike Haber

Timing is also related to adjacency. For example, if something happened 3 years ago, is that adjacent to the person’s learning? As we all know, people learn from mistakes more effectively when they receive immediate feedback. 

Adjacency also means that you cannot pass on feedback that is second or third-hand. “I cannot give feedback that a person cannot challenge,” Caitlin explains.

Think of a time when you received feedback and it worked well, and then of another time when it didn’t work at all. Do these rules match with your own experiences of receiving feedback? 

And what other rules might you have about feedback?  

Related blog posts


Giving and Receiving Feedback

15th Jun 2009

By Marian Way


A is for Adjacency

7th Jan 2021

By Doris Leibold

Related courses

About Jacqueline Ann Surin

Jacqueline Ann Surin's avatar

Jacqueline Ann Surin is a Level 1 Clean Facilitator, the first Master Level Systemic Modeller in Asia, and is qualified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the ICF. She is an associate of Clean Learning and Training Attention in the UK, and a specialist-partner of the Singapore-based BeInClarity. She was previously an award-winning journalist and has a published chapter in Clean Language Interviewing: Principles and applications for researchers and practitioners.

She can be found on LinkedIn.

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