How to Give Better Feedback
Today I’m going to hand you a simple feedback tool that’s changed my work, marriage, parenting, and friendships.
By mastering this simple structure of four key phrases condensed into two sentences, you're equipped to give even the most difficult feedback, making it easier for you to communicate and increasing the likelihood that it will be received with genuine curiosity.
How to Give Clean Feedback
Step #1 - Identify the Situation
Start by creating shared context for the feedback.
Just answer, ‘When and where did this happen?’ Simple as that.
You’re helping the receiver of the feedback recall the circumstance that you're sharing about. Then the conversation can proceed within that context.
Here are a few examples of identifying the situation:
In our team meeting on Tuesday…
There was a Slack message you posted yesterday...
At dinner last night...
Step #2 - Name Observable Behaviors
Following that, describe the concrete actions that transpired during that specific event.
It's important to avoid any subjective judgments in this step (which plays a pivotal role in the effectiveness of this method, and I'll explain more later on).
If you get stuck here, consider what an objective, impartial observer, like a recording robot, would have documented. Include only irrefutable details in your description.
Let’s continue with our examples (the Situation is included in parentheses):
(In our team meeting on Tuesday) ...you said 'I don't like this idea'...
(There was a Slack message you posted yesterday) …where you shared a screenshot of the upcoming release…
(At dinner last night) …your voice got louder and you talked for 5 minutes about concerns with our finances...
Step #3 - Share the Impact on You
We’ve arrived now at the most challenging step.
In this step, you choose to open up vulnerably by sharing what you felt in that moment. It's crucial that you're not attributing blame to them for causing your feelings. No one can make you feel something. They merely provide a stimulus, and your mind and body may assign emotions to it.
In the first two steps, you've identified what you believe to be the stimulus. Now, you share the effect it had on you.
Once again, avoid judgments and focus solely on the impact. The aim here is to create the opportunity for evoking empathy and fostering a deeper connection with the other person.
If you're uncertain where to start, begin with statements like 'I felt excited' or 'I felt worried.' Those are both easy starting points and everyone can empathize with what it’s like to feel excited or worry.
Let’s keep carrying those examples forward (Situation + Behavior now in parentheses):
(In our team meeting on Tuesday, you said 'I don't like this idea') …and I felt worried that the project would stall out.
(There was a Slack message you posted yesterday where you shared a screenshot of the upcoming release) …I was excited to see that.
(At dinner last night, your voice got louder and you talked for 5 minutes about concerns with our finances) …I felt scared to engage in the conversation.
Step #4 - Why does this matter to you?
After sharing your feedback, the next step is to paint a compelling picture of why this feedback holds significance for both parties involved. This brings us back to a shared context before handing over the opportunity for their response.
To achieve this, consider two questions: 'Why are you choosing to share this?' and 'What meaningful outcomes are you aiming for, outcomes that hold importance for both of you?'
Here are our continued examples:
I want this project to move forward and for our team to give alternative solutions when we don’t like the current one being considered.
I love how you’re helping us create a culture of building-in-public and continual iteration.
I want to be a partner with you in our finances.
Step #5 - Combine, Then Be Quiet
Once you've assembled those four phrases, combine them into two succinct sentences.
The first sentence should encapsulate the situation, the observed behavior, and its impact.
The second sentence delves into 'Why,' articulating the underlying reasons for sharing this feedback, highlighting the shared benefits and objectives that make it meaningful for both parties involved.
Here’s our three examples in their entirety:
In our team meeting on Tuesday, you said 'I don't like this idea and I felt worried that the project would stall out. I want this project to move forward and for our team to give alternative solutions when we don’t like the current one being considered.
There was a Slack message you posted yesterday where you shared a screenshot of the upcoming release, I was excited to see that. I love how you’re helping us create a culture of building-in-public and continual iteration.
At dinner last night, your voice got louder and you talked for 5 minutes about concerns with our finances I felt scared to engage in the conversation. I want to be a partner with you in our finances.
Once you have your two sentences, share them and then stop talking. Just be quiet so they can respond. The sooner you invite them into the conversation the better. Then dialogue can unfold from there.
SBI + Why:
1. Situation - When and where did this happen?
2. Behaviors - What happened?
3. Impact - How did you feel?
4. Why it matters - What’s important to both of you in sharing this?
Why SBI+Why Works
This feedback model works for three reasons:
- You begin by enrolling them in a shared context (Situation+ Behaviors) and end again with more shared context (Why this matters). This helps keep you both talking about what you have in common, and less so about where you differ.
- There's no room for judgments. Judgments tend to derail feedback conversations, as they are inherently debatable. Steering clear of this type of contentious back-and-forth is advantageous because your objective in providing feedback is not to prove yourself right but to ensure your message is heard.
- Sharing the impact openly and vulnerably, without blame, disarms defensiveness. While it doesn’t guarantee a flawless exchange every time, it significantly increases the likelihood of a constructive conversation.
It’s important to note, you aren’t responsible for other people’s reactions.
Your responsibility lies in delivering feedback in a clean, clear, and skillful manner.
Credit where credit is due, SBI is a useful tool developed by the Center for Creative Leadership. Adding in The Why is a component of the conversation that I’ve found to be vital in making the whole thing easier to share and easier to receive.