How to give (and receive) feedback

circular-arrowsI have spent 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.

So those are my suggestions for good feedback. What are yours?

(This post is dedicated to my good friend and former colleague Andy Perry, who was always so good at giving and receiving feedback.)

Please note: this is original work. You may reproduce this, but please inform me and credit as appropriate.

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

  1. This is a really helpful article, and many of the tips here should be read and read again by church leaders with colleagues, whether ordained or lay, regular or occasional. In my experience, many clergy fail to give feedback well, with many different and often apparently ‘good’ reasons behind it: lack of confidence in their own ability; a fear of being critical/judgemental; the haste of moving forward to the next event; it being such a long time since they received it; the subjective nature of public ministry/preaching; a fear of ‘professionalisation’ of ministry… and so on.

    But in my experience, as someone who can remember working pre-ordination in a world of evaluation, annual reviews, and professional development, I cannot see how we cannot seek always to give feedback, if you’ll excuse the double negative. Otherwise we get stuck in seeing ourselves only through our own eyes, which is not how anyone else sees us. When I recently became line manager for a local schools worker, the first thing we did was arrange regular times to meet, a form to work through as a basis for our conversation and to keep us on topic, and to make sure we both knew what we expected from the relationship.

    Quite simple, but rare in my experience of ministry.

  2. A point I always think is important (most of my experience being in the workplace rather than ministry) is that there needs to be a certain amount of trust and relationship built up before feedback can really be heard. If people have reason to doubt your motivation it is much harder for them to listen without fear, and indeed respond if they disagree with something said. It takes time and consistent good modelling to overcome the fear/mistrust that is inherent in any relationship where there is not relational parity (which is of course the case in most feedback situations!). It is also important to have an agreed framework against which feedback takes place (i.e. what is the common goal we are both seeking to achieve) as this means feedback is about progress, not the person, so I heartily second Kevin’s second paragraph.

    On a practical level, Justin Thacker mentioned in a recent lecture for my Cliff MA that when he took someone new into his team, he always asked them how they liked to be managed at the first meeting they had on joining. I wish I’d heard that idea 30 years ago!!

  3. That’s a good tip… as long as how they want to be managed fits within the parameters of how you want them to be managed!

    I agree about the trust thing…but giving good feedback can in fact build trust. I am not sure it is always possible to wait for trust to be established before giving any feedback; I think the two go hand in hand.

  4. Thanks for these thoughts Ian, they are really helpful. How I wish I had had this information as such a clear statement at the start of my curacy.

    I wonder too about the comments from former president, Theodore Roosevelt about the ‘Man in the Arena’. Basically, it is the man in the arena that counts so that if the critic is not in the arena with that man, and is instead sitting on the sidelines watching, then what use is the feedback of the critic?

    I think this is what you allude to when you say, ‘avoid becoming an exercise in the use of power.’
    Thanks again.

  5. Jackie, I guess my hope is that curates and incumbents might make use of this pattern, so do pass it on!

    Yes, the issue of power is important; I would actually go so far as to say that it isn’t really even about the person receiving the feedback, but the people who are receiving the ministry of the person receiving the feedback. In other words, the whole point is that the congregation might be better blessed!

  6. Amazing… thought these issues are prevalent only in shame cultures like mine.

    What do you do if a person requests your feedback then and there and the 1st things that come to your mind are all negative?

  7. Don;t speak your mind! At least not before having a second thought! I treat it as a kind of spiritual discipline to think of positive things to say.

    There is shame in Western culture, but it is more subtle and hidden.


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