How to give (and receive) feedback

circular-arrowsI have spent more than 30 years giving feedback and encouraging others to do so in a range of professional, personal and ministerial contexts. These have included being a personnel professional in an FMCG multi-national, being an ordained leader working with lay and ordained colleagues, and in the context of theological education. As a result I have two convictions about feedback:

1. Most people find it very hard to give and receive feedback in a positive, valuable and formative way. The idea of both giving and receiving feedback fills people with dread, and poorly given feedback can leave deep wounds which last for years and can destroy trust, friendship and working relationships.

2. Giving and receiving feedback is an essential professional, managerial and ministerial skill which can often unlock significant areas of growth and development. Without it we trip over our own flaws, risk damaging others and can hit an unnecessary ceiling in our own competence and effectiveness.

Feedback is a very powerful thing, not least because it helps us develop that vital element of maturity, ‘to see ourselves as others see us.’ For anyone in a public role this is vital. After all, how others see you is…how others see you! And feedback is potentially happening all the time. As I frequently commented to those in ministry training: just because people are not talking to you, it does not mean they are not talking about you! We are constantly being judged, evaluated and assessed. If we are able to access, in a positive and useful way, some of that evaluation, it could really help us to grow. And if our goal is to serve others, shouldn’t we want to do that as best we can?

So how is structured feedback done well? Here are my eight top tips.

1. Give notice

When you need to give some feedback, either as a regular thing or just as a one-off, always give notice to the other person. ‘Let’s fix a time to review how that went.’ There are two main reasons for this, one to do with you, and one to do with the other person. In relation to you, the person giving feedback, it is vital that the goal of the feedback is the growth and development of the other person, and is seen to be this, and is not a pressure valve to allow you to vent your frustration. For the other person, receiving feedback could be emotionally demanding, especially if he or she is not used to this. Giving notice allows the recipient to be prepared to receive your comments—and perhaps even to review what happened themselves first.

If you are the recipient, and someone tries to give you unplanned feedback, a good response is: ‘Thanks for telling me that. I wonder if we could arrange a time for a proper conversation about it?’

2. Choose a good time

A follow-on from the first point is to then find a good time to give the feedback. The most important thing it not to give feedback on the day of the event in question, particularly if this relates to public ministry. Preaching is demanding enough emotionally without having to face immediate evaluation as well. And those feeding back need to reflect on their experience as well. Things can look quite different after a day or two of reflection on the event, as the trivial things subside and what was important stands out. Make sure you allow enough time for a good conversation as well, and be clear how long the feedback session will last (which is a good policy for any meeting).

A good time for feedback will usually be in a context one-to-one, unless you have reached the point in your team where feedback is something natural to all your working relations. A good rule of thumb here is ‘Praise in public; criticise in private.’

3. Shape your feedback

In the past I have been taught to start with the good, what went well, or strengths, and then move on to the negative, to things that need attention and development. The problem with this shape, if used regularly, is that the person on the receiving end is listening to the good stuff, but inside is just bracing themselves to be hit with the bad! A better shape is to either mix it up, or go ‘good—bad—good’ so that you finish on a positive note.

Even better is to make the event a genuine conversation. I will often now start conversations by asking the recipient to assess what went well and what needs development. If feedback is not genuinely owned, it will not have its effect.

4. Give reasons why

Feedback needs to have external references points in two directions. First, comments need to draw on evidence from the event so the basis of comments is clear. Secondly, the reason for change needs to have a clear external rationale (‘If you do it this way, it means that people can…’). This prevents the feedback simply being a vehicle for your own opinions and prejudices; it needs to genuinely lead to more effective performance, and the person receiving comments needs to see how the comments will genuinely be of help to them.

5. Suggest a plan of action

Evidence-based feedback with a good rationale should then lead to a plan of action. This does not need to be complicated, but it does mean that there should be a clear way to allow the person receiving feedback to actually address the issue at hand.

6. Focus on strengths as well as weaknesses

There is a real danger in giving feedback that the process only focusses on weaknesses rather than strengths. I suppose the reason why it happens is that it is easier to spot mistakes than it is to recognise how strengths might develop further. But if this happens, then it can be demoralising for the receiver; the repeated agenda is to focus on the things that are not going well, rather than the things that are. So it is also worth exploring how things that are strengths already can become points of excellence within the ministry or performance.

7. Make it regular

Feedback is most difficult when it happens as a one-off, and the first time of significant feedback is often the most challenging. But the goal for any kind of ministry team should be to make feedback a regular feature of working together. If it is ‘just one of the things we do,’ then it is much less daunting and can become more fruitful.

1553019548. Make it symmetrical

If feedback is such a potential powerful tool for personal growth and development, then all should be making use of it. And if it is to avoid becoming an exercise in the use of power, then team leaders need feedback from team members as much as members need feedback from leaders and others. In a healthy ministry team, even the person ‘in charge’ should be ready to receive feedback from others. I have been preaching for 30 years, and taught it for the best part of a decade, but I still ask for feedback on my preaching. I still have room for improvement!

In Romans 16.2, Paul describes Phoebe as someone who has been ‘a prostatis for many, including me.’ Some commentators have argued that this cannot be a term of leadership, since otherwise it would mean that Paul, the great apostle, was in debt to someone from whom he had learnt about leadership. How unthinkable! In fact, I am sure that Paul was willing to learn from others just as much as he was willing to teach others.

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11 thoughts on “How to give (and receive) feedback”

  1. Ian, thanks for reposting this. Clear and helpful wisdom on the topic. In particular 1 + 2 have been helpful as they can be easiest to overlook.

    On 6 – have you come across the research indicating that a focus on maximising strengths can be more effective to overall development than improving weakness?

    • Hi Benedict. Have a look at work done by Marcus Buckingham (eg Now discover your strengths) who focuses on precisely this area.

  2. Hi Ian.
    My preface is that I am not British so might read an understand English a bit differently from you.
    My ‘Feedback’ (as I understand that word) is that I found this an interesting piece and was motivated to read it through to the end.
    My comment is that I think you are confusing the term ‘feedback’ with evaluation, assessment and judgment.
    To elaborate definitions:
    ‘Feedback’ is a personal indication of how someone experienced something, eg: “The sound was too loud for me” or “I could not understand your sermon.” That is very helpful information for anyone wanting to be effective. It is not essentially a critical response.
    Evaluation is offered by an individual or group who in effect assess, measure and judge the work or event being considered. As your piece recognises, there power issues involved here as the greater judges the lesser or the qualified the less qualified.
    Anyone can offer feedback. It requires an acknowledged authority or expert to Evaluate, Assess or Judge.
    Your Feedback is now most welcome! 😉

    • Dear Francis—greetings!

      I have used the term in the most general sense: providing input on the basis of the experience of receiving whatever has been performed.

      I agree that some of that can be evaluative, in more formal settings, and some could just be impressionistic. But in fact even the informal stuff offers some kind of evaluation. I think we need to be careful in how we handle informal things, as they might say more about the person giving the feedback than be anything objective—but even this has its value.

      There is something really fundamental about feedback in the context of relationships. Without realising it, we all depend on feedback in all our interactions—how we talk to someone will be shaped by the subtle signals we are being given within the interaction, which is a form of feedback.

  3. There’s sometimes a problem when a review is instituted only because of a perceived problem. Where it hasn’t happened before then it’s almost certainly on shaky personal ground.

    If it’s ‘always been there’ then it’s better/best.

  4. Thanks Ian. In GP land another model of feedback that is used is linked with the Calgary-Cambridge consultation model – acronyms ALOBA and SET-GO… Agenda Led Outcome Based Analysis ….which enables the learner to indicate what are they want to look at and SET GO which is useful for analysing videos of learners in a learning situation or working with role played interactions either in 1 to 1 or a group. The learner is asked what they see on watching, then what else see, what do they think about it, what was the goal, and what options might there be to get there.

    Having been involved in teaching medical students and GPs and GPs in training this method above is a wonderful addition to the feedback toolbox -and one that is easily adapted for other contexts for example ministry training etc.

    • That’s interesting Rhona. I used a similar kind of focus doing Personnel reviews 30 years ago! One key distinction is that outcomes allow evaluation of contribution, but it is assessing ‘inputs’ that opens the way to growth and development.

  5. Yes ….and there is always the challenge of how to evaluate and assess what cannot be measured.
    Really good to see this being discussed as feedback is so essential from growth and development in so many ways.


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